Minister Coutinho's speech on childcare

Minister for Children, Families and Wellbeing, Claire Coutinho, delivered a speech to the National Day Nurseries Association Conference (NDNA) 2023

Claire Coutinho MP

I have spent a large chunk of my career working out how we can help families and give children the best start in life. I first started working with disadvantaged children when I was about 16, and I’ve continued doing that throughout my career.

The evidence is very clear. The earliest years are the most critical stage of child development, something that everyone in this room knows. That’s the time when young children are learning most rapidly. It’s the time that’s going to shape the people that they become, and that doesn’t just happen by chance. The early education and care that you provide in nurseries across the country, that I go and see every week, is supporting those children in their critical years and also allowing their parents to continue work and earn money which helps them develop their own lives and careers.

One of the best parts of my job is going on those visits. I see all of your passion and dedication in practice. I get to spend time with children that I may have found to be my intellectual equals in life, and they are absolutely wonderful. Seeing all the things that you do is such an inspiration.

But young children can be many things. Even the most adoring parents will admit that they’re not always easy. It takes hard work to steer the next generation and yet that is our generation’s biggest task. I have nothing but admiration and respect for the endless patience, kindness, encouragement and expertise that I see that you provide for children in your care. I’m incredibly grateful for the work that you do.

I know the past few years have been challenging, which is an understatement. During the pandemic, it was nurseries that opened quickest after the first lockdown. You stayed open, getting on with the job of providing excellent education and care. I don’t think you can ever be thanked enough for this. I saw this myself as a constituent MP, just how important it was. Not only to make sure that people could go to work in the NHS, I’m the only person in my family that doesn’t work for the NHS, but also making sure that children got that vital education that they needed.

I also know just how hard recruitment and retention is at the moment. It’s one of the things that I hear the most when I go out and speak to all of you. And that finding and developing the staff - those talented, qualified staff - that is crucial for you to deliver the high quality care your children and parents need.

Supporting the early years sector and those who work in it is a priority for me, it’s a priority for this Government. But obviously don’t take my word for it. In the Spring Budget, we set out a commitment to the early years sector. The Chancellor pledged that by 2028, we would double our spending on childcare - aiming to spend more than £8 billion every year on those vital early years. That will fund the 30 hours of childcare per week for eligible working parents of children from nine months old, right to when they start primary school.

It is the single biggest ever investment in childcare in this country. And it’s in part thanks to the work of many people in this room, including Purnima and the NDNA, who I would just thank you so much for everything that they’ve done to campaign on this issue, make sure that it’s a hot political issue, make sure that we well understand the challenges that you face. I thank you all for everything that you’ve done on that basis.

But we heard loud and clear that those plans will come to nothing if we don’t make sure that you’ve got funding and support you need to deliver this offer.

So we will be spending an extra £4 billion a year by 2028. From September, we’re going to provide £204 million of extra funding to local authorities to increase the hourly rates they pay you now, and we’re going to make sure these rates go up each year. So that means in September, the average hourly rate for two year olds is going from £6 to £8 - a 30% increase. The average three to four year old rate will be going up 7% year on year, this year. And from 24/25, which will be the first time that a rate will kick in for under twos, that will be £11 an hour.

Before the end of the summer break, and one of the reasons that I’ll be going back for those meetings, we will be confirming the September rates for each local authority for 2023, so you can have some certainty on that. I’ll be asking you for views on how we distribute the funding for the new entitlements from April 2024, including the rules that local authorities will have to follow when distributing the funding to providers.

One of the things that comes up in my conversations with managers is concerns about top slicing. I know that access to SEND funding can also be a challenge. That’s something else which I’m passionate about - I also have special educational needs in my brief. We’re looking at the situation really closely to make sure we get that balance right in how the money flows to providers and ultimately to the children your care.

But of course money isn’t everything. I’ve heard from so many people working in and managing nurseries that there are parts of the Early Years Foundation Stage framework that stop you from making the most effective use of your staff. For instance, are you able to give your best people the responsibilities that match their abilities? That’s why the first thing that I wanted to look at is how to give you more flexibility and address some of those barriers while maintaining the high level of quality that you’re working so hard to provide. We’ve been engaging with lots of you to do this. That’s why we launched a consultation on changes to a range of Early Years Foundation Stage requirements.

We’re suggesting removing the requirement from level three staff to have level two maths to count within ratios. Now I’m an out and out maths nut, and you won’t find a greater champion for the subject than me, apart from possibly the Prime Minister. But this is about pedagogy and feedback that we’ve had in our conversations with you and the sector, and educational experts, suggest that the level two maths requirement doesn’t necessarily reflect the skills needed to support children’s early mathematical development.

You may have seen last year when we did the £180m Early Years Recovery Fund, we put in place some programmes for continued professional development (CPD) around early years numeracy and I’m very interested in that model, but we think removing the level 2 requirement for ratios could help the staffing situation and ease some of the pressure, make sure that you’re getting the right skill sets the right points.

Another thing that we’re looking at is the qualification requirements for ratios not applying outside of peak hours to give you flexibility on how you use staff across the working day and relieve pressure for hours outside of core learning, where level two or level three knowledge might not always be needed, to focus your time and education expertise during core hours. We’re also consulting on the rules around percentage of level 2 qualified staff per ratio. Leaders do often tell me that some of their best people often don’t have level two or level 3 qualifications. Of course, it’s important to raise standards across the board, but we also want to give you some flexibility so you can put your best people in roles where they can make the most difference.

There are many other proposals in the consultation and every single one of them has come from conversations with you held at my level across the Department. But we want to hear more. The deadline for responses is the 26 June - just under 7 weeks from now. I would love if as many of you as possible, go online and tell us what you think.

We’re also running a consultation engagement event with the NDNA in the next few weeks, so do keep an eye out for that. Again, we really want to hear from you. The approach we’re taking following this consultation as we move forward will reflect on what we hear from you because it’s your expertise that will make it a success.

Some of these new measures will also help free staff up to pursue their own professional development. We have an Early Years Education Recovery Programme, some of you will be familiar with that, which offers a package of training qualifications, guidance and targeted support for everyone working in the sector. And that includes opportunities from NPQs in early years leadership and professional development programmes, to the Experts & Mentors Scheme and Online Child Development Training. We know we need more graduates - I’m very concerned and looking at ways that we can create different routes in for people. We’re also training up 5,000 Early Years Special Educational Needs Coordinators. I know we’ve had huge appetite for that and it’s one of the things that gets raised with me a lot when I go and speak to nurseries.

I recently visited a specialist early years setting for children with SEND in Berkshire, and the parents told me there that  the support that they’re providing is a lifeline with them. I could also see how transformative it is for those children if they can get that specialist support at the right time in life. This funding will help us carry on supporting those parents with getting the right diagnoses. I know that it’s a massive challenge and it’s something which is a huge priority for me and for the Government at the moment.

All those training opportunities are brilliant, but the only way we’re going to get more people trained up is to get more people in. You all know why you work with a sector. I know there’s been some challenges, but everywhere I go when I meet people, they tell me how rewarding and wonderful it is. That’s why we’re going to go full steam ahead next year with the national campaign to promote the sector, support the recruitment and retention of talented staff. I’d love to hear from all of you about the things that you’d like to see us talk about at the national level on that.

And finally, I just want to acknowledge the hard work done by Purnima and her colleagues at the NDNA. They have been pushing for a government-backed recruitment campaign for some time. We are going to work very closely with you on how to design that. The NDNA’s ‘First Five Years Count’ campaign is an excellent platform for us to build off, but we want to learn all the lessons that you’ve seen to make sure that we can make this a success.

So we’ll be working closely with you and others and we’re going to consider how else we can support you. This is the time to do it. We now have childcare and early years right at the top of the political debate. So as we roll forward with these plans over the next few years, there’ll be lots of opportunities for us to talk and work together. That’s why I’m going to spend as much time as possible travelling up and down the country, visiting as many of you as possible. That’s why I want my officials to get out and visit settings. If you don’t know where the DfE people are, could you all stick your hands up? Right. So if I’m not here, please go and tell these people everything that you think we need to know. That’s why I’m here today.

All I want to say is please, please, continue to talk to us. We really care about this area.

Thank you so much for having me.

Department for Education
Claire Coutinho MP