Report: Understanding the impact of COVID on the early childhood education and care sector in England

CEI has just completed a major study on the impact of the COVID pandemic on early childhood education and care (ECEC) services in England, in partnership with researchers from the University of East London, Institute for Fiscal Studies, Frontier Economics and Coram Family and Childcare. The study was funded by the Nuffield Foundation and the various study briefings and reports are published here.

The study assessed:

  • the impact of COVID on parents' needs for and use of childcare
  • how ECEC services are responding and impacts on the availability and viability of provision
  • how local support and local labour market conditions mediate the effects of the pandemic
  • the opportunities and weaknesses in ECEC systems revealed by the pandemic
  • and how to support the system include an extended role for local authorities.

The study identified that most children missed out on ECEC for extended periods of time during the pandemic, with only around 10% of expected attendance in the first lockdown and attendance by Autumn 2021 still only at 90% of the levels expected without COVID. Attendance was particularly lower than expected in areas with large ethnic minority populations, in deprived areas, and in areas with high unemployment rates. Conversely, attendance rates were higher in Local Authorities (LAs) that were less deprived, had higher rates of development amongst two- and five-year-olds and had higher rates of female economic activity and lower unemployment rates.

The take-up of funded entitlement places amongst disadvantaged two-year-olds fell by 7 percentage points from 69% (already a level that should cause concern) to 62%. Children from minority ethnic groups and with special educational needs were most likely not to take up funded places.

Detailed qualitative interviews with parents, providers, and LA early years teams revealed the stark implications of children missing out on vital early learning. Speech and language delays were reported across all age groups; children’s physical development and motor skills were negatively impacted; and children struggled to adapt to new situations and develop self-regulation resulting in increased social, emotional, and mental health needs. There was also widespread concern among early years practitioners that the development gap is widening and that the drop in participation of disadvantaged children may now become permanent.

The research also highlighted the impact of the pandemic on the financial sustainability of childcare providers, with many dipping into reserves or taking on loans to continue to prioritise the needs of local families. The pandemic did not lead to an acceleration of the pre-pandemic trend of declining numbers of childcare providers. However, the pandemic exacerbated existing weaknesses within the ECEC system. Our evidence highlighted that local authority support could mediate the impacts of COVID, but it's clear that the sector faces a web of complex challenges including reduced profits, uncertainty over levels of take-up as demand for flexible provision increases, and an unprecedented staff recruitment and retention crisis.

The precarious financial position of providers was also found to have serious implications for children with complex needs as settings struggled to support them as some providers’ decisions were increasingly shaped by financial considerations and led to a prioritisation of children who generate more income and less likely to offer places to children with complex needs.

The central role of ECEC in supporting child development, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds is very well established. Loss of access during the pandemic reinforced its central role. But the impact on take-up, and particularly the effects for children from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds, highlight that the inequality gap will widen.

To reverse this trend, this report highlights the need for more funding from Government so that disadvantaged children have equity of access to quality early years education, including new statutory responsibilities and funding for local authorities to ensure high quality and accessible childcare provision is a key component of the local offer to families with young children across the country.

The study involved:

  • initial interviews with stakeholders and a mapping of the ECEC system, to frame the study
  • secondary analysis of national datasets on ECEC attendance and provision
  • a survey of LAs to investigate how they supported local ECEC systems and perceptions of the impacts of the pandemic
  • and qualitative research with parents, ECEC providers, LA early years staff and employer representatives

We shared findings from the study as it progressed, including a briefing paper to inform a series of roundtables highlighting emergent findings and implications for the Autumn 2021 UK government spending review, a report on the local authority survey findings, and a series of stakeholder workshops to discuss and formulate policy recommendations.

Read the study here.