New research reveals COVID pandemic has exacerbated challenges, widened inequalities in UK childcare sector

Press Release:

A project funded by the Nuffield Foundation with researchers including the Centre for Evidence and Implementation has released its final findings.

The Implications of COVID for Early Childhood Education and Care in England report, published on 20th June, reveals that the pandemic has exacerbated existing challenges and widened inequalities in access to childcare. 

Most children missed out on some early education because of the pandemic. But some children’s experienced longer or more frequent disruptions. The research highlights the impact on areas with large ethnic minority populations – these were particularly likely to experience temporary setting closures during the first year of the pandemic.

Analysis of national data shows that between January 2020 and January 2021, there were large falls in the take-up of funded entitlement places for disadvantaged two-year-olds, and, to a lesser extent, amongst three-year-olds. This was especially marked in areas with large ethnic minority populations and limited labour market participation. 

Attendance was also lower than we could have expected in deprived areas, and areas with low female employment and high unemployment rates. This suggests that children from poorer families and in workless households were most likely to be missing out on childcare. This is worrying as these are the very children and families who stand to benefit the most from accessing high quality childcare.

The research shows the impact of this disruption on children. Speech and language delays were reported across all age groups as children had fewer opportunities to develop their communication skills at home. Children struggled to adapt to new situations and missed out on opportunities to socialise and develop self-regulation skills. And, as the children spent less time outdoors and more time in sedentary activities, their physical development, including their motor skills, were negatively affected. 

As disadvantaged children have missed more early childhood education and care than their peers, there was widespread concern among early years practitioners that the development gap is widening – and that this could result in a further widening the already existing attainment gap between children from poorer backgrounds and their more affluent peer.

Parents and carers reported the challenges of parenting without access to childcare. Mothers were more likely to experience the strain of parenting, with their mental health negatively affected, while fathers were more likely to report the benefits of being able to spend more time at home with their children. Lone parents and families with children with additional needs who required considerable support found parenting particularly challenging. 

Additionally, some working parents (mainly mothers) experienced reduced income due to disruption to childcare arrangements, forcing them to take unpaid leave or reduce their hours of work.

Providers also faced a number of ongoing challenges, with the sector in a more risky financial position as providers experienced changes in income and report unpredictable demand and challenges to sustainability, as well as unprecedented staff recruitment and retention challenges. 

What comes through strongly from the research is the importance of local authority support for how well childcare functioned throughout the pandemic. Some local authorities adapted their family information services, provided a brokering service to match parents with available provision, and asked settings receiving public funding to support remote home learning.

The report highlights a number of implications for policy and the sector:

  • More funding from central government to build a better and more resilient early childhood education and care system, with a focus sufficiency and equity of access and quality, linked to clear policy objectives and developed in consultation with stakeholders.
  • A stronger role for local authority early childhood education and care teams supported by dedicated funding.  A named early years lead in all local authorities with responsibility for ensuring that high quality and accessible early childhood education and care provision is a key component of the local offer.
  • Supporting take-up among disadvantaged children, evaluating current schemes, extending those that are effective and testing new approaches.
  • An increase in good quality local authority provision, for example through school-based settings.
  • Ensure families are not excluded from early education and childcare for cost-related reasons.
  • Stronger partnership with parents to support parents engagement in their children’s learning, including provision of home learning to children who do not access early education and childcare.
  • A stronger safeguarding role for providers to identify families who need support.
  • Local authority support to providers could be strengthened in three key areas: advice and funding to support sustainability while ensuring that services meet the needs of local families; development of local early childhood education and care workforce strategies; and advice and training to support quality improvement.

The pandemic has highlighted the pivotal role of childcare in supporting children’s development as well as an essential component of the economic infrastructure, enabling parents to work.  The pandemic has also further undermined equity of access as fewer children are accessing childcare, with those missing out being the children who are most likely to benefit from it. We need to learn the lessons of the pandemic and use them to build a better and more resilient childcare system that better meets the needs of children and families.

Read the report