The past few weeks in early years have occupied us with getting to grips with the immediate practical challenges arising from the pandemic and lockdown. We have invested time in making sense of the various policy and guidance updates from DfE and HMRC. Providers have been navigating the Government’s financial support for businesses, and adapting services for vulnerable children, and providing childcare for the children of keyworkers. It is a understatement to say it has not been easy.
The primary challenge is the not-knowing. The uncertainty of how long these conditions will last, and to what extent COVID-19 financial support, and early years funding will be available. Much of the public and press debate is inevitably switching to consider the notion of what a reduced lockdown might look like and when, phased returns to normal service delivery, and the reopening of all schools and childcare settings.
The local authorities I have been talking with report that around a quarter of their private, voluntary and independent early years providers are open at the moment. With many childminders making up that figure. All have done a really good job of sharing and circulating information to the childcare providers in their areas. What’s really important is we now make sense of this plethora of information and summarise it, with suggested actions and considerations – essentially to ensure we have common understanding and no one is disadvantaged through lack or information or misunderstanding. The support and opportunities available now must be grasped with both hands.
I think the raft of Government support that has been made available to business and employers has been amazing. Without it, we would all be in a grave position. Many early years businesses, mine included, have benefitted from the Job Retention Scheme (JRS), Small Business Grant Fund, Business Rates Holiday, VAT payment delay etc. In addition, the confirmation of payment of full early years funding (whether settings are open, partially open, or closed) provides some peace of mind. However, we are concerned providers are at risk of not making best use of all this financial support. One barrier is the management challenge and the change each setting and school is required to handle, as well as adaptations to respond to the needs of keyworkers. This is further compromised by mixed messages around what financial support is available to whom.
Present conditions remain significantly challenging and should not be underestimated. I was very pleased to see the JRS extended to the end of June 2020. Timing is everything and as we hurtle towards the end of the traditional school year, and approach the summer holidays, thoughts inevitably focus on September and beyond.
Everyone running a business, including early years providers, are rightly concerned about the route out of the present difficulties. The return to any sense of familiar territory or service delivery will be a slow and uncertain one. We do not yet know how parental employment patterns will effect eligibility, need and demand for funded entitlements (universal, two-year-olds and 30 hours) and paid-for childcare. Recovery will not be like switching on a lightbulb. Instead, we will all have to carefully and continuously monitor our markets and parents’ and children’s needs, preferences and behaviours. Our market monitoring must inform nimble and constant change to the services we are used to delivering. This will have huge impacts on our biggest resource, the workforce. The management test will be huge.
Local authorities remain responsible for the childcare sufficiency duties (Childcare Act 2016) for all children. Additionally, DfE expects LAs “support childcare settings to ensure that there are sufficient places for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children. Local authorities are also responsible for monitoring demand and capacity. This requirement may ebb-and-flow as we move out and into lockdown or social distancing requirements. This may involve working with childcare settings to provide places in alternative settings if necessary.” Councils must ensure they are taking appropriate actions now, and are prepared and ready to support the sector to recover as the effects of the pandemic unfold.
We recommend a four-strand strategy for local authorities:
- Information. Provide a reliable and up-to-date source of information to inform providers’ business choices, decisions and actions. Take time to digest, analyse and summarise information. Offer guidance as well as signposting and referring to other sources of information.
- Tools. Make available a set of useful tools and resources to help providers take action. Include a range of bespoke tools and signpost to others available.
- Support. Be available for responsive support on demand through email, telephone or video conferencing. Support can be to problem solve, clarify information, and/or support the use of tools. Offer bespoke online business support training.
- Intervention. Make available targeted intervention to support action planning through crises and emergencies. Support where settings are identifying serious sustainability issues, in areas where there is a sufficiency need. Signpost to or offer financial grant and/or loan funding where this is thought to resolve the identified risk. Set out clearly the deliverables and commitments of intervention support.
Once the current situation changes, the manner in which schools and settings respond to a highly dynamic childcare marketplace and a transformed employment picture, will be of critical importance. The sector was already reported to be under financial and sustainability pressure prior to the pandemic. The medium- and long-terms may present further critical challenge and need for change, as well as new opportunities, that must be managed.
This blog was first published by http://www.cypnow.co.uk