Covid and Childcare: The role of Local Authorities
A semi-structured telephone interview was undertaken with 122 Local Authority (LA) Early Years Leads between February and April 2021 as part of a wider Covid and Childcare study exploring the impact of the pandemic on early education and care services. Childcare plays a vital role in enabling parents to work and providing early education an help boost young childrens’ outcomes and narrow the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.
- Demand for parent-paid hours fell substantially (more than demand for free entitlement hours) during the first lockdown and stayed significantly below usual levels even after restrictions changed in June 2020 due to the shift to home working and parents reducing or stopping work temporarily or permanently.
- Few permanent setting closures due to the pandemic were reported and most LAs reported either no or small numbers of providers at substantial risk of having to close in the near future.
- There was a mix of views on whether and how the quality of provision had been affected, and many Early Years Leads were not confident to make a judgement on this.
- Concerns about the future of the out-of-school sector were raised throughout, both from the impact of reduced demand from parents working from home and from continuing delivery challenges reducing supply.
- More than half of LAs thought there would be permanent changes in parent demand, in childcare provision, and in the LA role in the sector.
Support provided by local authorities
- Almost all LAs reported they had supported parents around childcare use during the pandemic, through providing guidance and childcare brokerage.
- All LAs reported supporting childcare providers during the pandemic. This support responded to the most pressing local needs.
- 80 LAs reporting specific measures being offered in almost all policy areas, including the two types of policies supporting parents (guidance on using childcare and assistance to find childcare) and the five types of policies supporting providers (health and safety, staffing challenges, financial management, local financial support, and quality).
- Total local additional spending to support childcare provision through the pandemic was considerable in many LAs, but there was substantial variation, with several LAs reporting no additional spending.
Effectiveness of local authority support
- Although LAs were active in a large number of policy areas, supporting parents and providers, they struggled to assess the effectiveness of these activities, with only nine LAs reporting that their actions had been effective in four or more of the seven areas of support.
- Many LAs also mentioned the importance of the strength of the LA Early Years Team and the use of external support such as regional co-operation with other LAs and assistance from national organisations.
- Government guidance was the most common hindrance discussed by LAs, although some did identify the guidance as a facilitator. But the factor that elicited the most strongly worded views was the status of the early years sector, with a strong feeling that the sector is undervalued and not understood within government, both at the national and local levels.