Learning the hard way, but let’s make it the right way
by June O’Sullivan, CEO of London Early Years Foundation
Monday, May 4, 2020
June O'Sullivan reflects on what we can all learn from the lockdown
If we learn anything from the lockdown, it might be a better understanding of our over-dependence on a global economy and the impact this has on our economic stability and values. In a perfect world, our return to normal life should be an altogether different journey with a national celebration and reward for those who helped make society work. A rejection of our facetious fascination with celebrities, footballers and those with overpaid non-jobs.
Instead, let there be a public reappraisal of our attitude to critical workers: doctors and nurses and the low paid people who bolster our infrastructure such as supermarket staff, delivery drivers, postmen, bus and train drivers, taxis, park keepers, binmen, community volunteers and, of course, school and nursery staff.
Before this pandemic, the childcare sector faced a year-on-year funding shortfall of £662 million (still growing). The Ceeda (2019) report noted that Government funding covered the cost of four out of every five children accessing funded early education places, which equated to a shortfall in fees of 18 per cent, rising to 21 per cent when the cost of unpaid staff hours was built in.
The low funding means the sector is in a continual battle between surviving and investing in the 319,000 staff who work in Early Years which results in low salaries and limited training opportunities. This also has resulted in over 20 per cent of staff being among the 8 million UK working families living in poverty (after housing costs have been paid). Those families who although earn the national minimum wage are left 11 per cent short of the income needed to raise a child. A pretty poor show from a society that entrusts its youngest citizens with their education. It wasn’t so long ago that I complained bitterly about the home secretary’s definition of an ‘unskilled worker’ was set within a low salary net which caught many well trained and qualified Early Years teachers.
When the lockdown was announced, many childcare settings faced closure. The lack of proper funding meant little cash reserves and no financial survival contingency. The panic across the sector was profound but the responses were practical. As a disparate sector shaped by the market, we tried to respond as one. Our willingness to connect and share ideas was noticeable – even if it took a little push at the beginning but one big voice did emerge.
However, that voice was ignored for a while which drove me to Twitter. I was offended that the secretary of state for education seemed to favour our already well protected schools whilst giving little air-time to the equally important Early Years. Furthermore, our newly appointed minister for childcare was confused and reproachful and it took a little while before the shadow minister for childcare stepped in to demand policy decisions which would save not destroy the sector.
Meanwhile, many of us, both big and small had reshaped our organisations to face the wind and offer a service to critical workers and vulnerable children. We upped our game on home learning and personal support. We opened food banks and arranged collection of medicine. We reached out a helping hand. Eventually we got lumped into the “care category” and took our bow at the Thursday evening Clap for Carers.
So, where are we now in this waterfall of appreciation? In a leaky boat about to go over the edge or in seaplane able to land? We have endured confusing information regarding furlough and funding which led to negative press and a message that some nurseries were getting rich by deliberately accessing two financial incentives! Local authorities were told they could claw back funding and the emergency funds were diverted to schools. Bank loans were slow and excluded a lot of settings. The self-employed childminder fell between the cracks and the social investment sector took a long time to produce an expensive loan option. The message on PPE was unclear and we couldn’t access it anyway. We had to fight to get our early hour slot at the supermarkets and many staff had to negotiate busier public transport because of the decision to limit the frequency of the tubes.
Some nurseries won’t recover, especially those in poor neighbourhoods. Some will be reshaped into different models. We will see redundancies and unemployment and certainly the economy will be hammered. But we have our allies too. Many parents have been stunning with their support. The skills of the Early Years teacher have been revealed to many more parents. The home learning experience has shown parents more about what we do. Parents figured out pretty quickly that working from home with toddlers is just impossible in the long term for them and actually their children really missed their friends.
What does that mean for the sector in the longer term? If we think this pandemic is a one off, we are wrong. There will be more national crisis whether environmental, viral, accidental or even germ warfare. As a nation we must not forget this COVID-19 time. Stop our short memories and build recall prompts into our national policies and communication strategies.
It would be easy now to let our focus become entirely operational and obsess with the steps to re-open at the cost of a long-term plan. But that would mean a missed opportunity to lead a national conversation about why we need to future prove childcare as part of our national infrastructure.