June O’Sullivan, CEO of London Early Years Foundation, discusses whether nurseries will be able to remain sustainable now and in the future due to the financial strains and safety concerns of COVID-19
As I write this, we have completed a full month in lockdown. The role of nurseries has been challenging – balancing safe distancing with delivering a fourth emergency service to children of key workers and vulnerable children.
It took a while and a lot of twittering for the Secretary of State for Education to acknowledge our existence as a sector and our willingness to keep nurseries open at huge risk to our non-PPE staff – not to mention the crippling financial loss as we continue to operate at about 7% occupancy.
Added to this, the media have been far from kind – accusing all UK nurseries of closing and leaving NHS parents without a childcare place. But the argument was won when they understood the financials of running a nursery for just three children.
Like many nurseries, lots of work has been done with local hospitals to try and provide suitable childcare services. What we did surmise was that for those nurses and other essential staff being asked to do more shifts and longer hours, the daily cost of the childcare was too high as it was not factored into their daily financial outgoings. My view was that we reduce their stress and reward them, not just with claps but practical help and we started a fundraising campaign to offer more free places.
When the national furlough life jacket was thrown out, many grasped it to survive and closed their empty nurseries and furloughed all the staff. It was the obvious decision. The promise by the Childcare Minister, Vicky Ford that we would have full funding even if we had furloughed staff for the Spring term (on the basis that we don’t know when we can reopen) was reassuring. However, the DfE clarifications which arrived late during the evening of Friday 17th April completely override this guidance. Most childcare settings had already done all the furlough planning and calculations. Not only was this truly shocking and distressing, it put paid to any sense of temporary comfort.
Without question, now is the time for a public conversation about the fact that childcare is part of our infrastructure. It’s not a tacked-on service available only to those who can afford it. The schools are in a much better place – their staff get paid no matter what. They have been given extra emergency funds and additional resources and mostly some great recognition. So why has the Early Years sector been forgotten and when will the Government recognise that children under 5 years really do matter? They matter a great deal. This is the question we should be addressing not carping that nurseries are not open.
It’s now imperative that the Government fully understands both the simplicity of our business mode and the complexity of its operation when you are trying to do more with much less. We must recognise that, as a country, where 75% of the families have two parents working, they need a robust childcare sector as a support and a comfort whilst the children need it to strengthen their learning and development. Now is the time for a new partnership to be formed with mutual benefit.