Looking back on a year of Covid, and forward to what lies ahead...

On 18th March 2020 Boris Johnson announced the closure of schools to most pupils from the following week, with just a few words for early years providers “so we are simultaneously asking nurseries and private schools to do the same.”  Over the next few months we became accustomed to being added on almost as an afterthought, and with much less consideration given to how we might cope in settings where social distancing is both impossible and inappropriate when caring for young children and babies.  We became accustomed to the repeated assurances that young children were highly unlikely to become poorly if they caught the virus, which thankfully proved to be the case – but this wasn’t very reassuring for early years practitioners who might themselves be clinically vulnerable, and a particular low point was when the government advised that such staff shouldn’t be furloughed, only suggesting that they avoid public transport at busy times.

We were extremely grateful for the furlough scheme, which saved many jobs that would otherwise have been lost, but the only other financial support we were eligible for was business rates relief – and for a charity which already receives at least 80% relief, this didn’t have a huge impact. Our biggest overhead after salaries was our rents, and I was deeply disappointed with some of our landlords, most of whom offered only the option of delaying rent payments, not reducing them at all. Ironically, it was three of the private landlords (and one school) that generously waived our rent for a short but critical period. We were also given an opportunity to end our office lease a year early, which was gratefully taken up, as we were all working from home for several months, and after that could use the meeting rooms and training rooms above two of the nurseries, that couldn’t be used for their usual purposes. We cut every cost that we possibly could, as long as it didn’t affect the quality of care being provided.

We did have some casualties.  Out of our three standalone out-of-school clubs we had to close one temporarily, one we hope to re-open in a few months, and one was closed permanently and the whole team were made redundant.  We also had a few redundancies in the back office team and at one nursery which was particularly badly affected.  On the whole, though, we have survived, and we even managed to open our latest and long-planned nursery in the middle of the pandemic, albeit with a socially distanced opening, and a very slow initial take-up of places, particularly as it was situated in the eerily quiet city centre.  Three things saved us.  Firstly, undoubtedly, the resilience, dedication and sheer hard work of the entire Acorn workforce, both in the settings and in our central support office. On our weekly managers’ meetings it was very evident that staff were being stretched to the limits of their endurance, and stress levels were at times extremely high, but the quality of care given to children never wavered, and the creativity in the support offered to locked down children via our Famly software was both inspiring and heartwarming.   The second saving grace was the support, gratitude and patience of our Acorn families, who, almost without exception, worked with us to find new ways of working, with bubbles, socially distanced handovers, and an ever greater reliance on our online communication systems. Children were delighted to be at nursery, parents were relieved at being able to continue working, and occupancy levels have been rapidly rising in recent weeks. The final factor was the financial support we were able to access, through the furlough scheme, but also the Resilience and Recovery loan scheme, which enabled us to go ahead with our planned nursery opening in Central Milton Keynes, and still maintain our childcare services, several of which ran at a loss for several months, but which we were determined to keep open, in order to support our keyworker families and to be there for the children that needed us.  We were also very fortunate to have a supportive and engaged board of trustees, who gave us moral support and encouragement throughout the period.

What really didn’t help, and which was definitely the trigger for the worst period of low morale for all the staff teams, was the way in which early years providers were treated so differently from schools, especially at the start of this year, when we were told to open for ALL children, and yet not have access to rapid-flow tests, even though schools did, despite them only being open for a limited number of children at that time. There was, and is, NO financial support for bubble closures, which have thankfully now slowed to a trickle, but which have a severe financial impact in fee refunds. On top of this, it seemed utterly ludicrous that last week, we finally received boxes upon boxes of unasked-for disposable masks at all of our settings!  As soon as it became clear that masks were needed for communal areas in nurseries and for handovers with parents, and that this was going to be a longer-term practice, we had purchased high quality reusable masks for everyone.  Some disposable masks (or funding for them) would have been very useful several months ago, but for them to arrive at such a late stage just reinforces the feeling of our being an afterthought for the government.

So what lies ahead?  Clearly we’re not going to be able to go back to many of our normal practices for several months, and definitely not until all staff have had their vaccines.  We miss our home visits, which normally take place before each child starts their nursery life with us, and which get parent partnerships off to such a good start.  We miss our visits to the retirement flats and care homes, although some of these have now restarted in very moving through-the-window communications from the gardens.  We have adapted very well to receiving children at the nursery door, and the habits formed by children in their new arrival routines are likely to be continued, as there has been a noticeable ease and lack of upset for most children - but we do look forward to welcoming parents into the nursery at the end of each day again, for more leisurely feedback and time for them to see the nursery environment properly.  Our monthly managers’ meetings became weekly, then fortnightly, Zoom calls, and with some of our settings being an hour away, we will undoubtedly keep the Zoom/Teams habit for many of our meetings that involve different nurseries, as we’ve realised just how much time (and petrol) has been saved by not travelling so much.  We do, however, miss our face-to-face training days, and will be resuming those as soon as we can.  Early years practitioners thrive in practical hands-on workshops, and the discussions that can take place in face-to-face sessions are definitely more fruitful than the online “you’re on mute” exchanges and battles with technology.  I should add, though, that we have all become so much better at working online, and using Teams, and the pandemic has done more than several years of gentle persuasion to make us almost completely paperless in our administration!  

Finally, I hope it doesn’t sound too smug when I say that we also feel vindicated in our passion and enthusiasm for outdoor play and learning, and feel encouraged that the importance of children spending time outdoors is being more widely recognised, not just because it’s the safest environment during a pandemic, but because of the all-round benefits.  We also feel even more enthusiastic about our ethic of care, in the way we treat each other as well as in caring for children and in working with their families.  The importance of caring for our carers is being recognised by the public, (if not always by the government, who seem to think that claps are enough of a reward) and although the early years workforce has been a neglected and undervalued sector for far too long, I hope that the current recruitment crisis may help to trigger a rethink about what is needed to ensure that we have the dedicated professional practitioners that children deserve. If we want to get it right for the crucial period of a child’s early years care and education, we need to nurture and develop the early years workforce, and we need government funding and support for this to happen.  Underfunding the free entitlement is helping to create a two-tier system, and although our cross-subsidy model has so far survived at Acorn, there is a danger of many nurseries not surviving – and it’s no secret that the ones that will struggle the most will be the ones in areas where parents can least afford to pay high fees.  ALL children need access to high quality early years care and education, and that can’t be provided for on the cheap.  It’s short-sighted and dangerous to rely solely on the market to provide nursery places; if we’re to nurture the next generation to have a healthy and happy start in life, we need to recognise that the current funding model does not support an equitable early years sector.  The pandemic has demonstrated how taken-for-granted the early years sector is, but when there are insufficient nursery places for working families, which is becoming increasingly likely, maybe then the government will recognise that there needs to be a rethink about their priorities, and that the country’s future depends on nurturing the development of its youngest citizens.

The 18th March marked a year since Boris Johnson’s announcement – but it also marked 25 years to the day since our nursery in Shenley Church End opened its doors for the first time.  The nursery’s birthday celebrations were only for the children this year, but we hope to have a belated real celebration after lockdown, both to mark the birthday, and to celebrate our survival.  We’re a much bigger organisation than we were in 1996, and our roots are growing stronger and further; we aim to continue to be resilient and adaptable, and to always put the needs of children at the forefront of our thinking and our actions.