OPINION: Karin Smyth MP on Early Years education in Bristol South

(Newspaper column as seen in the September 2019 edition of The Pigeon)

I’ve been a longtime supporter of Early Years education. Before I became an MP, I was a governor of a nursery school and my own children all benefited from the previous Labour government’s investment into Early Years education, so I appreciate first-hand how valuable it is. 

Nurseries and pre-schools have such an important role to play in communities – helping children get a good start in life and preparing them for school. Early years provision offers an important safety net for those children who may be at risk of falling behind from the off and is crucial for social mobility. Children’s Centres are central to this too. 

Decent and affordable early years education is even more important for families on low incomes. When early years education costs more than you earn, it’s no longer an option open to you. This is clear from the many conversations I’ve had with parents. 

Earlier this year, Matt Caldwell, Acting Headteacher of Illminster Avenue Nursery School, said: “Nurseries are social hubs and beacons in communities that have nothing else left in their locality, as service after service has been gutted by years of austerity…we give thousands of children in Bristol the best possible start in life.”  

To view it as childcare alone is a mistake. Nurseries and pre-schools deliver a vital education function; they teach toddlers the basics – learning through play and socialising with other children.  

The government should be investing sufficiently in this area. 

It has offered working parents up to 30 hours of subsidised childcare a week. But my meetings with early years leaders across South Bristol have revealed a gulf between the increased running costs of accommodating this ‘subsidised’ offer and the amount the government actually contributes to this. 

Earlier this year, I met with the team at Windmill Hill City Farm’s nursery Windmill Hill City Farm’s nursery who explained that the government’s ‘funding’ falls short of what they need to run the nursery – by around £1 per child per hour. As a result, they have had to limit the number of subsidised places they offer to avoid running at a loss. This directly impacts parents who may struggle to secure a nursery place locally for their child/children. 

Once again, the government is pushing the financial burden of delivering services onto the service providers. We’ve seen this in other areas – with schools and healthcare. To claim the credit for supporting families without providing the funding to meet their commitments is not good enough.  

I’ve raised this in parliament in the past and I will continue to do so. I’d be interested to hear about your experiences of current early years education in Bristol South. Does it work for your family? You can contact me via the details below.