Social Policy

Covid-19 and our Children – The exacerbation of inequalities

I don’t think I feel alone in feeling completely stretched as a parent over the past few months, writes Jen Ramsay.

In fact, in the deeper discussions I’ve had with other parents, I’m at least comforted by the fact that so many of us have felt out of depth at times. Almost overnight, parents across Wales have suddenly torpedoed from being just mum or dad – into expert tutor and all-round domestic genius. 

The dining table in my house is no longer just a place to congregate with my family to eat. It’s become so much more. A work station, an arts and crafts play area – and even a mini House of Commons at times. However, I know I’m luckier than most. I have a garden that my son James can play in, fibre-optic broadband which gives me access to so many learning resources and enough space for him to run around and explore. That same experience isn’t felt by a couple living in a high rise flat, or a single parent who has been furloughed with limited job opportunities and who through no fault of their own is now struggling to make ends meet and support their child. 

To my mind at least, it’s evident that Covid-19 has highlighted these inequalities and it’s more important than ever that Governments at all levels readdress their support for families and children. A lot has been said by commentators over the impact of home-schooling on children’s education journeys but there’s been little attention given to the impact that the pandemic has on pre-school children and what that might mean for us all in the future. 

It doesn’t take an expert to know that the first 1,000 days of a child’s life are absolutely crucial to their development. Life chances and outcomes are significantly improved if support and services are there for families. Unfortunately, for many families, Covid-19 has stunted those opportunities and as a result the gap between those wealthier families and those more from disadvantaged households is likely to widen further. 

For that reason, Governments at all levels, from Westminster to local authorities need to act. Where is the parenting support strategy to better enable and encourage parents and where is the support for the early years sector? In September, the Welsh Government told us that over the coming months Ministers would be focused on delivering support for settings, support for the workforce and support for parents. Credit to them, ten days ago, the Welsh Government announced a funding package for the sector as part of the Welsh Government’s Covid-19 Reconstruction: Challenges and Priorities agenda. But there’s no new thinking – there’s just a few allocations to a few different pots with no forensic examination of where support needs to be – or what it really needs to deliver. 

I don’t doubt the Welsh Government’s intention to do what it can for our children, but early years policy seems fragmented, with little direction and with a ‘one size fits all approach’ – well one size doesn’t fit all in modern Wales. The challenges faced by a parent like myself is worlds apart from those families faced with limited capacity and means to support their children. It’s distressing to hear from parents about their fears for their infants, some of whom haven’t been able to attend local playgroups and Meithrin clubs. It not only stunts their child’s development, it now seriously questions the sustainability of some of the groups – groups which are a lifeline to children and parents. 

We can of course, learn from countries like Norway and Denmark who are pushing ahead with quality nursery provision and adopting some really interesting approaches to early years, but we have to learn quickly and act now. But it’s not just about looking across the globe at other countries, it’s about listening to families in our own country and providing opportunities for all.

2020 is fast becoming the lost year – lost lives, lost jobs and if Governments don’t act quickly enough, lost children too. Today my dining table has been all manner of things, a breakfast host, a painting centre and a workstation – it’s time for the Welsh Government to take a seat at a table like mine and commit to a serious discussion about how we can best support our children not just throughout the pandemic, but for the foreseeable future.

Jen Ramsay is Paul Davies’ Senior Adviser in the Senedd.