Summer is still here, as the title of this blog reminds us. But autumn term is fast approaching, a fact that is very much occupying minds in the early years world.
Looking ahead, I am being told a growing number of early years providers are saying their expected numbers are higher this autumn compared to last. How could that be? Especially given we are also hearing stories of closures and uncertain or uncommitted re-openings. Well, in some areas, autumn term 2019 was a little slower than usual. There is also a strong message that those providers who were able to remain open throughout lockdown now perhaps have stronger relationships with families and have attracted new families to their provision in addition. And with changing employment, travel and household patterns, families may be looking for something different, or could be choosing to stay with these new settings. This means some settings will be in more demand, some less so, and of those this could be an emergency.
I am told repeatedly by local areas that closures of early years and childcare settings in recent weeks and months have commonly been attributed to existing pressures and conditions prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. They have not been as a direct result of the pandemic. So what next? The ability for LAs to provide full early years funding (for funded places based on previous levels of attendance), access to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme until 31 October, and gradual and cautious increases in take-up may be enough to sustain some settings until the end of autumn term. This will not be the case everywhere. Half term will be the next tipping point, especially given its proximity to the end of furloughing and likely spikes in redundancies or changing employment terms and conditions. Another factor is the choices schools will make to their delivery models and how their decisions will affect the delivery models of the PVI sectors. This is something that should be done under the spirit of effective business relationships, not in isolation or disregard for other small businesses or charities. There may be enough in the support pipeline to achieve survival until the end of autumn term and the Christmas break. But it is what happens next that has the potential to be a biggest challenge yet. How are parents actually using provision, what are the income streams and what are providers’ abilities retaining the capacity and capability to survive and thrive?
On the flipside, many areas are also reporting new group care openings and new childminder registrations, these are encouraging and hopefully will meet changing and redistributed need, demand and preferences. It would be an additional challenge, an own goal, if such provision was set up in competition with existing settings. By monitoring trends and identifying risks in the sector, or sub-sectors, we may be able to target support and interventions where they are needed. Every area is different, and so is their childcare supply, its type and proportional splits in the maintained and PVI sectors. These affect local expectations and patterns of use and marry-up with local employment and social behaviours.
Whatever, everyone, whether considering closure, maintenance, re-opening, or expansion needs to have the ability to read the intentions and actual behaviours of parents and families. I urge everyone to think about human behaviour as a huge factor in how need, demand, and preferences for childcare use are employed from now on. This is something to watch under intense scrutiny. It will most likely change, shift and be unpredictable throughout the twists-and-turns of the next phases of the pandemic and economic response. This is because there is a big difference between intent and actual. It’s like putting a towel on a sun lounger. Are people really intending to use a place they have registered for, or are they doing what they can to ensure it is there should they decide to use it in the future? We should all be mindful of what people are saying now, watching with hawk-like interest at the start of tern, and observing carefully how patterns of use are manifesting throughout the weeks to come. It’s a long term and the stakes are high.