Nursery workers, childminders and nannies have been working hard throughout the pandemic. This work is, in part, what has allowed key workers to keep working. This has been crucial not only for parents and their employers, but also for the children themselves, especially those who are vulnerable or disadvantaged and those with special educational needs.
The government’s COVID recovery plan for schools in England includes £153 million for professional development for early-years practitioners. This is good news for a workforce that is chronically underpaid and undervalued. But the question is, will it be enough?
These early-years professionals have been forced to respond rapidly to uncertainty and change, which has only been exacerbated by ambiguous and inadequate official guidelines. The government was slower, for example, to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing to people working in private nurseries than in other parts of the education sector.
When schools closed to all but keyworkers’ children and vulnerable pupils, nursery workers continued to work. And they were not prioritised for the vaccine despite their daily risk of exposure to the virus.
Observers fear the £153 million lump sum is only a fraction of what is needed to enable staff to address the widening attainment gap for the most disadvantaged children. They also question whether it will ensure a healthy recovery for the early-years sector more broadly.
Professional development alone is not enough. Nursery workers are often paid little more than the minimum wage. Without improved salaries, this recovery package will only reinforce their perception that their skills and knowledge are not valued.
Studies suggests that early-years education is “foundational” – an essential structure that underpins the economy and society. Our ongoing research into the impact of COVID on the sector lends weight to studies which indicate that the past year has placed significant financial strain on providers.
Meanwhile a survey conducted by the Early Years Alliance in May 2020, also found that one in four nurseries feared they would not reopen. While our research doesn’t indicate closures on this scale have or are taking place right now, the changes providers are making to adapt are likely to place greater strains on the workforce and threaten to undermine the quality of the education and care they provide.
Revenues plummeted when fewer children attended nursery due to the pandemic. The department of education’s subsequent decision to continue to provide funding at pre-pandemic levels did prevent many from falling into deficit. However, this measure was reversed in January 2021 and funding was altered to reflect actual attendance.
This is likely to have affected those nurseries where attendance was lowest, which, our research suggests, will be those in areas of greatest deprivation. This will exacerbate the negative impact of the pandemic on the poorest families.
These pandemic-related losses have compounded long-standing funding shortfalls in early-years education. New data obtained by the Early Years Alliance through a freedom of information request shows that there is a shortfall of £2.60 per child for every hour that is funded through the government’s 30-hour so-called “free” childcare offer.
In response, nurseries and childminders are taking measures to compensate for their financial losses. Many are using their savings and taking on debt. More worryingly, others have also cut staffing hours. They are reducing hours, raising fees and increasing the child-to-staff ratios, which, research suggests, will lower the quality of education and care.
The combination of these changes is likely to affect the affordability of childcare. Importantly, it’s also likely to undermine the quality of the education and care the children receive.
For parents, accessible and affordable childcare is essential to both remaining in work and returning to work. We conducted a survey of 1,020 parents in England and Wales between January and February 2021. Of our respondents, 40% (344 parents) said that their ability to work was affected by childcare. Of these, one in ten had difficulty finding or securing a job because of problems accessing childcare during 2020. And almost one in five parents of the 344 said that a lack of childcare had an impact on their career progression.
Most parents who decided not to return to work after maternity or shared parental leave during the pandemic cited childcare and some, specifically the cost of childcare, as a significant factor. Research has shown that when childcare becomes more inaccessible and unaffordable, it is women who disproportionately pay the price in terms of their work and career progression. If this happens as a result of COVID, it will roll back decades of progress.
The All Parties Parliamentary Group for Childcare and Early Education has called on the chancellor Rishi Sunak and education secretary Gavin Williamson to fund a premium for the early-years of up to £3,000 per child. This echoes the call made by specialists at the University of Leeds, the University of Oxford and Oxford Brookes University for early-years provision to be more thoroughly included in COVID recovery plans. Responding to these urgent calls must be a government priority.
Xanthe Whittaker, Research Fellow in Human Resource Management, University of Leeds; Jennifer Tomlinson, Professor of Gender and Employment Relations, University of Leeds, and Kate Hardy, Associate Professor in Work and Employment Relations, University of Leeds