“Act like you’ve got it” is the government’s latest message, but this doesn’t seem to apply in the early years sector, according to the latest guidance, issued earlier this week. Early years practitioners across the country were understandably anxious and upset after Boris’s announcement that schools should close for all but key worker families and vulnerable children, but that nurseries should stay open. This was good news for working families, and many staff were glad to be able to continue working, but for those staff at higher risk, the latest guidance includes the following message:

If staff are concerned, including those who may be clinically vulnerable or who believe they may be at possible increased risk from coronavirus, we recommend setting leaders discuss any concerns individuals may have around their particular circumstances and reassure staff about the protective measures in place. Apart from the usual reminder about hygiene precautions, the only other suggestion was for nurseries to flex staff shifts to allow them to travel on public transport at less busy times! 

We’re proud that most of our nurseries have stayed open during the pandemic, and there are robust hygiene measures in place, but let’s be realistic. We can’t, and don’t want to, socially distance from the children, and although they do not pass it on as easily as older children, they can and do catch and transmit the virus to the practitioners caring for them, and are often asymptomatic. We have been fortunate that so far none of our staff have been critically ill, but are we really supposed to demand that our clinically vulnerable staff should continue to work closely with groups of children?  Needless to say, we have furloughed our pregnant and clinically vulnerable staff, but have to be able to demonstrate that it’s because of lower occupancy, not because of our concern for their health.

Given that we have been repeatedly warned how much more transmissible the new variant of the virus is, why is it also now considered OK for us to abandon our working practices of the bubbles? When the virus seemed to be abating, we were glad to relax the bubble sizes, but we have continued to separate out our nurseries into smaller groups with consistent staffing. Not needed, apparently! Early years settings are no longer required to organise children and staff in small, consistent groups so can return to normal group sizes. Children are even allowed to attend more than one setting. Most nurseries are being very responsible about minimising movement between groups, but with staffing under enormous pressure, that is becoming increasingly difficult.

This might make it sound as if I think that parents are being unreasonable in continuing to send their children to nursery. Not at all. I’d be happy to accommodate every child whose parents need childcare in order to work, even those working from home (I don’t personally think you can safely care for a small toddler and work effectively at the same time), although I personally feel a better option would be to allow parents with young children more flexibility to be furloughed during this critical period. Similarly, I’m very happy to accommodate children who are deemed vulnerable, and am happy to apply a very flexible definition of vulnerable. What I really object to is the insistence that our parents who could easily stay at home, either because they don’t work, or because they can’t work at the moment, are being penalised if they do keep their children at home. Almost all settings are charging parents full fees, whether they attend or not, which is understandable, given the financial pressures the sector is under, but impossible for parents who may be unable to work because they have school aged children at home. But to make matters worse, some local authorities are also putting pressure on parents to send their children, with some refusing to pay the free entitlement funding if children are absent for more than two weeks. This makes the situation worse for us than the original lockdown, when we were allowed to keep the funding, whether or not children were attending.

Parents are now faced with an impossible situation – to pay full fees or risk losing their child’s nursery place, and to send in their child for the free entitlement hours, even if they’d be happy to keep them at home for a few weeks to ease the pressure on the nursery and minimise the risk to their own family.  Nursery finances are pretty dire. Maintaining small bubbles helps to reduce transmission, but the staffing costs are higher than with normal working patterns, when practitioners can move between groups, and numbers within groups are consistent. We also have additional costs for the extra cleaning and the PPE needed in communal areas. 

I am so proud of our staff teams for maintaining their professionalism and cheerful spirits, but I also know how worried many of them are, and this is exacerbated by feeling completely disregarded by the government. We have been given no financial support towards our overheads, other than business rates relief and the furlough scheme, which has many strings attached. There is no help towards paying rent and other overheads, and loans or rent holidays only delay the cost, they don’t reduce it. We have had no access to testing in the way that schools have had, although this is now being promised, and we frequently have staff needing to self-isolate, sometimes for several days while waiting for test results.  What would really help would be to have some assurance that early years practitioners might be given some priority for the vaccine – but at the moment that seems unlikely, even though a vaccinated workforce would make it much easier to support front-line keyworkers who depend on us for childcare.

Finally, it also seems evident to me that the government have completely lost sight of the needs of children. In their obsession with getting best value from the childcare “market”, and their insistence on full attendance for the free entitlement funding, they advise local authorities to “manage the wider market flexibly to ensure that there is sufficient childcare provision…this may include: moving children between providers where one provider has closed, and another has empty dedicated schools grant (DSG) funded places…operating through clusters and hubs to maintain educational provision.” This cavalier approach to placing children in any nursery where there is a spare place completely ignores the need for children to have consistent key workers and familiar environments. We were, and are, happy to accommodate children of key workers whose usual nurseries had closed, but it really isn’t as simple as booking them in and dropping them off - transitions have to be managed sensitively and carefully. A change of nursery should not be forced on children or providers simply to tick an attendance box for the DfE.

One of Boris’s defining characteristics is his tendency to perform a U-turn, several days or weeks after the evidence clearly shows that current government policy is misguided. I am hopeful that there may be one in the next few days for the early years sector, to at least allow us to keep the free entitlement funding even if parents keep their children at home, and to recognise that whilst children are highly unlikely to be poorly with the virus, staff certainly could be, and those with underlying health conditions need protecting.

The other action that is needed is for the government to offer some financial support in those situations where nurseries have to close or partially close due to positive cases. We have been told we cannot charge parents for any Covid-related absences, but just exactly how are we supposed to pay our rent with no income? I can understand that subsiding nurseries might be problematic when some childcare providers are continuing to be profitable, but for those of us with nurseries in areas of deprivation, supporting families on low (or no) incomes, we need some help if we are to continue to sustain those nurseries. We’re doing our best, but even not-for-profit nurseries have bills to pay, and we desperately want to protect our staff!