By Deborah Lawson, Assistant General Secretary, Community Union (Voice Section)
Coronavirus has had a massive impact on the nursery and early years sector – something borne out by recent Voice surveys of members, and reports by several early years organisations.
In our UK-wide early years survey in May 2020, 56 per cent of respondents' workplaces remained open for vulnerable children and those of critical workers, but almost twice as many settings closed in Scotland as those that remained open – possibly because many settings there were merged, forming local hubs.
Where settings remained open, the vast majority of staff (80 per cent) were required to continue working – often in the setting on a rota system, with the rest of the time undertaking tasks from home.
Even where settings were fully closed, many staff undertook training and planning work or cleaning ready for re-opening. Less than half (44 per cent) were not required to work at all.
Although 60 per cent of respondents continued to receive their pay as normal, 31 per cent reported that they had been ‘furloughed’ during the lockdown and had been reliant on the Government's Job Retention Scheme covering at least some of their salary.
Some of the issues that arose were the result of government initiatives, such as the Job Retention Scheme, or misunderstandings due to a potential lack of clarity on guidance.
Sixty three per cent of respondents reported government guidance was not clear. Respondents themselves were clear that there needed to be more time to act on government guidance before it needed to be implemented, with only a fifth of respondents believing that settings were given enough time to act.
Confusion about guidance was also evident in our second summer survey, with 17 per cent of early education respondents agreeing to employer requests for them to work while on furlough. Whether this was accidental or deliberate, it is concerning. Although the guidance stated employees could not engage in work that makes money for the employer while on furlough, it was open to broader interpretation because of the lack of clarity and, in the worst circumstances, abuse.
This was complicated for many nurseries that received both public and private funding, but 11 per cent of respondents were furloughed at some point during the period of enforced closure, potentially saving jobs.
Impact on staffing
Without the Government's Job Retention Scheme, it is probable that we would have seen much higher job losses and closures across the sector.
Sadly though, for some early years settings, the instruction to close only served to add to an already fragile financial situation that subsequently resulted in them reducing costs by condensing the staffing.
In our summer survey, when considering the impact across different job roles and age groups, the 41-60 age range were the most likely to be at risk.
It has been well publicised that it is likely that some provision will not survive this crisis and will close their doors for good.
We also identified that restructuring has been common in schools – despite funding being protected by government.
Respondents noted a number of restructures across early years settings whose funding had not been protected, and we have written to the Government to express our fears and concerns for the sector.
Securing the future of the sector
Against a backdrop of an escalating funding crisis, the impacts of Covid-19 are clearly being felt by early years staff, who continue to deliver a service imperative for the country's workforce, economy, and its long-term future.
Yet, despite this vital role, our own research and recent reports on the impact of the pandemic on the childcare sector, from the Education Policy Institute, National Day Nurseries Association and the County Councils Network, make grim reading as they highlight the parlous financial state of the childcare sector.
Although the furlough scheme – as an emergency measure – has helped to save jobs, more must be done to secure the future of the sector and retain the qualified and experienced staff we need to ensure children benefit from high quality early education and childcare provision.
We reiterate our call for immediate financial support and long-term investment from government to save the sector, and to recognise early education and childcare as a critical infrastructure cost for immediate economic recovery and future economic health.
We also want to see the implementation of national career and pay structures for the dedicated and beleaguered workforce. As demonstrated by our own research and that of the Early Years Workforce Commission, it is clear that career structures must include access to training and well-being initiatives.
Annual Survey 2020 October 2020
COVID-19 Survey Results July 2020
EPI/NDNA: The Covid-19 pandemic and the early years workforce: Staffing decisions in an uncertain environment (England, Wales & Scotland) September 2020
County Councils Network: Rural and remote areas most at risk of being impacted by childcare closures, councils warn (England) September 2020