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We don’t just need an exit strategy…we need a new reality for Early Childhood

Date 27.04.2020

We don’t just need an exit strategy…we need a new reality for early childhood, says Eunice Lumsden, head of early years at the University of Northampton in her new blog.

‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’

Buckminster Fuller

This quote from the American architect has so much to offer our thinking about what next for early childhood. Before the Coronavirus, the early years sector in England was facing numerous challenges. Despite ongoing Government investment, the financial viability of settings, recruitment, retention and qualification levels continued to be problematic. All of these have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

The early years is not alone in the issues it faces, they are reflected in other professional areas that occupy the early childhood space. However, what Covid-19 has done extremely effectively is shine a very bright light on the professionalism of those that occupy this space, regardless of whether they work in health, early years, education, social care or the police. Their commitment to their chosen career pathway and the communities they serve has been outstanding, especially given the low pay and status of many that work in these sectors and the risks that continuing to work has had on their health and that of their families.

As we slowly transition into a new reality, this light still needs to be shining brightly as the ripples of COVID-19 will be more like a tsunami in the early childhood sector. Policymakers must ensure their ‘applause’ leads to real change and revisioning of what is important for a strong and sustainable society.

Given the impact on the economy of the pandemic, there will be huge competition across Government departments for money. Investing in early childhood and sustainable services for families must be a priority – we need to take action now to mitigate the intergenerational impact on all aspects of society.

Arguably, for sustainable change, a ten-year strategy approach that extends across the life of a parliament is needed. This should be mirrored at a local authority level as well.

There have also been intermittent calls for a Minister with a cross-departmental brief to be appointed to represent the ‘voice’ of the child and facilitate a more joined-up approach to early childhood. The arguments for and against this are complex, but we all have a responsibility, now more than ever, to the future lives of our youngest citizens.

We already know that there has been a decline in child protection referrals and an increase in domestic violence. Yet domestic violence is prevalent in child abuse cases, as are mental health, drugs and alcohol.  Research clearly shows that living in ‘toxic’ environments impacts across the life-course. This research needs to proactively shape our new reality.

Services that enable early intervention in families, especially by the third sector, are severely compromised. Many services are closed or providing minimal services, with telephone helplines becoming the new norm.  Many charities and not for profit organisations are struggling to keep solvent. Many, like businesses in the early years, will not be here in the coming months. Furthermore, the decline in children’s centres and the services they provide is well documented.

Temporary changes have been made to regulations for the care and protection of children and young people in the care system, including visits and six-monthly reviews. Changes to adoption and fostering panels, adoption hearings and requirements for kinship and residential care are raising concerns about children’s rights. In short, to meet the real operational challenges, the voice of the child is becoming more invisible.

There has been a decline in the day-to-day work of hospitals and GP surgeries, with the subsequent concerns about the impact of this on early intervention in health conditions. There are also concerns about the wider impact on health by social isolation which will increase demand in the future. We are also likely to see an increase in pregnancies and births from December onwards. With this will come new challenges for the already stretched midwives and health visitors, the early years sector and schools.

Moving forward, as services begin to reopen there will be new challenges and skills to be learnt to mediate the impact of increased child poverty, grief, trauma and the mental health and wellbeing of those we work alongside and that of our colleagues. So many will have faced the loss of family members during the lockdown period and been unable to follow the normal grief rituals. Child and adults alike will be working hard to make sense of what has happened, but there are no easy fixes.

For some, it is important to realise that ‘lockdown’ has not all been negative.  Their new ways of being and the serendipity of the unexpected gift of time parents have had with their children has been welcomed.  New ways of managing work and family life have been negotiated that have enhanced family life but may well have a knock-on impact on some early years settings.

We already have the research that reiterates time and time again, that investing in early childhood is vital for the sustainability and economic wellbeing of any society. Children do not develop in siloes, they require health, early years, education, social care and policy to be working together. We have a choice now, Coronavirus has forced us into a new reality, it is our choice now whether we make the old reality obsolete.

Dr Eunice Lumsden, Head of Early Years, University of Northampton