On Tuesday I published a very long (too long!) blog about the prospect of Childminders and other settings preparing to reopen from 1st June, as per DfE guidance.
By 6.30pm this blog was already out of date and plans in disarray, following a statement from the DfE published by Nursery World Magazine, the Early Years Alliance and PACEY. The statement explained that in actual fact, Childminders (and nannies) could actually reopen the following morning, if they met certain conditions:
This casual treatment, ignoring previous, unambiguous guidance setting 1st June as the earliest date to reopen shows a complete lack of understanding and respect for the Childminding profession. I am appalled that the government think it is in any way acceptable to U-turn on such an important step. It is unfair and unrealistic to suggest that Childminders might reopen with less than 24-hour’s notice. Time is needed to plan, prepare and consult: A risk assessment to consider safety and hygiene practice is required; policies and procedures updated; space and resources assessed and reorganised; contracts revised; and the views and concerns of parents and children (& in some cases staff) taken into consideration. On top of this, if restricted to care for a child or children from just one household, the childminder will be operating at significant financial loss, potentially earning less than £2 or £3 per hour, which is not viable.
I appreciate that a number of Childminders are already in this position, having remained open to provide vital childcare services to front-line staff and other critical workers and for vulnerable children. I applaud their efforts, they are doing an heroic job, and those facing reopening for the first time can learn much from these colleagues going forward. The issue is not around being open already versus re-opening; it is about reopening at incredibly short notice, having been given different, conflicting information over the course of three days.
In terms of fully re-opening there are valid concerns. Many of the Childminders already open have been operating at reduced capacity (and reduced income) but if the June 1st date goes ahead as planned (we won’t know until 28th May which is another issue entirely), potentially Childminders can have their full EYFS quota plus whatever number of over-8s permitted by their insurance capacity. This increases the risk proportionately, as the Childminder will now be coming into contact with a greater number of people. Childminders are in the unique position of having to accept people into their homes at a time when social distancing rules ban this in all other situations. Childminders can accept other people’s children into their homes and interact with their parents but cannot accept their non-resident children, or their grandchildren; a heart wrenching situation for many.
Childminders are putting themselves and their families at increased risk of contracting Covd-19 every time they work. It is simply not possibly to clean a home-based environment to clinical standards, and this is not appropriate, nor is (we are told) use of PPE unless we have a child showing symptoms. We cannot realistically exclude our families from our childminding environment, something that was seen to be being suggested by Ofsted on their Facebook page, before they too retracted and revised their statement, suggesting that all along they had meant excluding the household members of minded children not our own. We cannot and should not socially distance from the children in our care.
Yesterday morning I was interviewed by Judith Burns at the BBC, outlining these issues, part of which appeared in an article published on their website:
This morning I appeared on live TV on BBC Breakfast and was asked about my plans regarding reopening. This took me well outside my comfort zone and I have been overwhelmed by the many positive comments I have received from people who saw it.
https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000j503/breakfast-14052020 appears at 6.51am
I am also quoted in an article published by Nursery World yesterday (you need to sign up for a free account to read this)
I have shared these pieces extensively on social media, not to self-promote but to try get the message regarding what has happened over the past few days circulated as widely as possible; to get the voice of Childminders heard – not that I am so presumptuous as to assume I speak for all childminders!
I hope I have been successful in my aim.
Having now had the opportunity to express my concerns, frustration and anger at the way Childminders have been dealt with by Government this week I am now attempting to achieve a state of acceptance and some degree of positivity going forward.
I am remaining closed for the time being and taking this time to plan and prepare for a hopeful opening on the 1st of June. I am looking forward to seeing my minded children and their families again and I WILL be hugging the children (if they want me to)!
I am not planning on a move to Hollywood in the foreseeable future...
Just because we can, should we?
Like thousands of others around the country I prepared to watch the Prime Minister’s address on Sunday evening with a mix of anticipation and trepidation. I finished watching with a mix of anxiety and confusion. There was also a fair amount of irritation arising from the lack of immediate availability of guidance to flesh out the ‘recovery plan’. We had to wait until 2pm on Monday for that and with it came even further confusion. In spite of the guidance advising Early Years settings, and primary school year groups of Reception, Year One and Year Six to prepare for opening from 1st June, the statement on page 26 of the plan that said, ‘The Government is also amending its guidance to clarify that paid childcare, for example nannies and childminders, can take place subject to being able to meet the public health principles at Annex A, because these are roles where working from home is not possible. This should enable more working parents to return to work’, threw the childminding workforce into disarray. Did this mean Childminders should be opening from this week or from 1st June along with the rest of the childcare sector, and since when did Childminders not work from their own homes?
Fortunately, both PACEY and the Early Years Alliance were on the spot and able to obtain confirmation from the DfE that Childminders should be preparing to open from 1st June along with other Early Years settings, and not immediately; a point also made by the Prime Minister in his speech to Parliament yesterday afternoon. It would appear that the author of ‘’OUR PLAN TO REBUILD: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy’’ misunderstood the role of a Childminder or used the incorrect term in error, perhaps intending it to mean ‘Home Childcarers’ who do provide care in the child’s home.
Since this initial guidance the Government have gone on to release a number of sector specific documents giving further details of what might be involved in the reopening process, such as who will be eligible to attend schools and settings and what measures should be in place, as well as guidance for parents on what to expect (see below).
As with all the guidance and documentation coming out at the moment it has been written in haste but with good intention. There are errors and inconsistencies which are to be expected in the circumstances. In places it is as clear as a muddy puddle and certainly open to interpretation. However, critique it as we may, it’s all we have to work on at present, though no doubt there will be numerous updates and additions over the coming weeks.
So where do we go from here?
As I said in the title, just because we can, should we? Although there is provision within the Corona Virus Act 2020 to enforce opening of registered childcare settings this does not apply to Childminders, who have been specifically excluded from this element of the legislation. Childminders have a choice. There is no single answer to the question of whether to be open or not, or to open for some children but not all, as every setting is unique and so will have to make a decision based on many factors. This blog is aimed primarily at Childminders but many of these factors are relevant to all settings. This list is not exhaustive:
A large number of headteachers, teachers, childcare managers, staff, Childminders and parents have made it very clear on social media and via the news media that they strongly believe it is far too soon for children to be returning to school and childcare, and that the age groups selected are the wrong ones, believing the focus should be on those older children who are approaching exams and who are able to follow social distancing practices.
People are rightly fearful of the risk of infection and a potential ‘second spike’. Too little is known about the transmission of the coronavirus to be sure that allowing young children to mix in numbers is safe. Although it is known that children are less likely to transact Covid-19 and that if they do, their symptoms are more likely to be mild. Government have cited this a one of the reasons why they believe it is going to be safe for children to return. What about the adults caring for those children though, or the adults bringing and collecting the children given that far less is known about children’s role as carriers and their transmission of the disease to others? Is it safe for these adults to be mixing? The government guidance freely admits that social distancing between young children is not possible, but it is also not possible for the adults caring for these children. Young children NEED physical contact to feed their emotional well-being, in the same way that they need to eat to feed their physical being. They need hugs and cuddles, comfort and tears wiping (and snotty noses and pooey bottoms!). These are requirements of healthy development and cannot be denied. Osfted have made a number of suggestions on their Facebook ‘Childcare Registration’ page as to how settings might manage some of the challenges, most are quite reasonable but this one stands out as particularly unhelpful:
‘’Reducing the number of people you come into contact with at work; if you are a nanny, not mixing with other nannies and household members, if you are a childminder, not allowing other household members to come into your childcare space’’
Given that the 'childcare space' is the whole house (registered premises) obviously this would be unfeasible, but even if a Childminder only uses downstairs how can they tell their partners and children they cannot move around freely in their own homes, especially given the restrictions already being placed on them. If the childminder has young children of their own this is obviously impossible. Even with older children or a separate playroom it is problematic
Childcare settings are opening to enable parents to return to work, but should providers be accepting children if their parents are at home? The guidance for workers remains unchanged and says that they should continue to work at home if possible and only travel to their workplace if they cannot work at home. For some parents though, working whilst caring for a small child is not easy, and often impossible. In these situations, it would be entirely appropriate to accept these children into the setting. If the parent is successfully managing their work-child balance there is no obligation for them to change this, especially as attendance at an Early Years setting is not a legal requirement. Government are keen however that parents take up the opportunity to send eligible children to school and are strongly encouraging this, but even so, have not made it compulsory.
In addition to fears around getting the virus there is also understandable resentment around the logic of it being suitable to accept unrelated children into the Childminder’s home and to have direct contact with their parents but not be able to see their own grown-up children or their grandchildren, due to social distancing rules. For parents who have previously relied on grandparents to provide children there is similar resentment. The government argue that grandparents are at increased risk due to age, but not all are over 70, and many may not even be in their 50s yet.
Before going forward and making any firm decisions regarding opening, Childminders will need to talk to their families first to make sure they have their backing, before then discussing the options with their minded families. They also need to think about themselves and their own mental and physical health. Do they feel ready and able to go back?
If the childminder decides to proceed, they will need to address any concerns the parents and children may have. They will need to update policies, procedures and contracts to cover any changes they are implementing, such as doorstep and sickness policies and think about how best to communicate these to parents, including getting them signed. They will need to ensure their child record details, including emergency contacts are updated and gather new starting point or ‘all about me’ information about the children – a lot will have changed in 11 weeks. They should ask questions about how the children have been affected by the lock down. For some children it may have been a very traumatic experience, and some may have lost loved ones to the virus.
Before reopening the setting, Childminders will need to think about how they can adapt their space, organisation and routines in order to fulfil guidance on hygiene and distancing.
The first step will be a risk assessment, remembering that it is about minimising risk rather than eliminating it, as the latter is simply not possible. It is also about balancing children’s needs against safety.
Things to consider include:
It’s up to you to decide!
Personally, I am very wary of opening as I am not sure that even by the 1st June it will be safe to do so but I also know that the time may never feel right or at least not for a long time anyway. Coronavirus is not disappearing any time soon and might never go away completely. Government are working towards a principle of slowed down infection rates whilst possible herd immunity builds and a vaccine is developed, but these are unknown factors and cannot be relied on. We have to go back to work sometime, we cannot afford not to. This will not be work as we have known it in the past but some form of normal will emerge.
I am still considering my options, keeping dialogue open with my families and awaiting further government guidance. I’m sure there will be many more late-night updates over the weeks to come.
Watch this space!
Guidance for settings:
Guidance for parents:
The recovery plan…
Where I have talked about settings going back, opening or reopening, this is not to assume all settings have been closed. I am using these terms to refer to settings that have been open for children of critical workers and vulnerable children who will be opening to a wider range of children as well as those who have been fully closed and are reopening for the first time.
As speculation regarding the possibility of easing lock-down restrictions over the next few weeks grows, including the potential timetable for the reopening of schools and childcare settings, some of the support measures put in place by Government have begun to kick in.
Sadly, it has turned out that much of the support announced by the government is not available to the childcare sector or has been diluted following subsequent ‘clarification’ by HM Treasury, such as claiming furlough alongside receiving FE funding.
This is highlighted in a sobering report from the Early Years Alliance which featured on the BBC, ITV and other prominent news channels, suggesting that around a quarter of providers believe they will have to close permanently as a result of the Coronavirus emergency and inadequacy of financial aid from the government.
What support is available?
There is no denying that on the face of it these measures constitute a generous and unprecedented package of financial support, something the government is fond of repeating whenever there is criticism. They have stated that the support offered is intended to be ‘temporary, timely and targeted’ and that ‘no organisation should profit from the exceptional financial support available and should therefore only access the support required’. Both statements appear fair and reasonable. However, the devil is in the detail, and issues are found in the government’s complete lack of understanding of how the childcare sector operates and its unique challenges, coupled will the chronic underfunding the sector has endured for far too long.
The guidance states, ‘we expect that all relevant organisations should first consider any potential options to reduce their operating cost and secure commercial loans before seeking to access grant paying schemes like the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme’. All very well but what if you are not eligible for these loans or do not have the means to repay?
Many settings do not qualify for either the business rates holiday due to being in properties where they are not paying rates anyway. Settings may not be eligible for rates relief due to their property’s rateable value. Settings may be wary of applying for the coronavirus business interruption loan and then finding themselves unable to repay and are concerned about the additional burden this will place on their already struggling business. Others cannot apply as they are unable to demonstrate to lenders that their business will be viable going forward. None of these schemes are available to self-employed Childminders.
There was better news yesterday, with the launch of the Bounce Back Loan Scheme which at first glance appears to be a more favourable option that the business interruption loan and is potentially open to Childminders too. This grant is 100% government guaranteed so less of a risk for lenders, and interest free for the first year. It IS still a loan, however, so will have to be paid back.
Universal credit is available to some self-employed Childminders, but the application process is unwieldy, mistakes in entitlement calculations made frequently, and no use if you have a partner who is earning as both incomes are taken into account.
The Self-employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) is a bit of an unknown factor and comes far too late. On Monday (4 May) HMRC opened a portal for individuals to check their eligibility. Those successful were then given a date and time mid-May to log in to make their actual claim, with payments due by the beginning of June (possibly sooner). Those being told they are not eligible are given a link to a form to complete requesting that their claim is investigated. HMRC will also be sending out letters/emails inviting the SE to apply for this scheme.
The main issues with this scheme are:
I have saved the ‘best’ till last: the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and FE Funding. These have caused so many providers many sleepless nights.
The first hit came when HM Treasury confirmed fears that despite assurances by the DfE that the CJRS and funding could be claimed together there was a caveat and subsequently there would be conditions applied.
The second hit was in the form of new guidance and legislation allowing Local Authorities to redistribute the FE funding in ‘exceptional circumstances’ from closed providers, to open ones, in spite of settings having been advised that funding should be claimed and would be paid as usual even if children were not attending.
The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and furloughing staff
Firstly, what actually is furlough? Until coronavirus furlough did not exist is UK employment law. Historically it has been used to refer to periods of leave of absence granted to military personnel and it is a feature of US law as a period of unpaid laid. Its nearest equivalent in UK law is ‘lay-off’ which comes with its own set of rules and may be appropriate for staff who cannot be furloughed. The government have introduced the term furlough as a temporary leave of absence due to the coronavirus pandemic as part of the CJRS, in which employees are paid 80% of their usual salary, up to a maximum of £2500, which is repaid to the employer by the government. These employees are placed on leave, in blocks of 3 weeks at a time, rather than be laid off or made redundant.
I’m a bit late with this, given that furloughing has already taken place, but then, so were Government. They sent out the revised CJRS financial guidance regarding the impact of funding late on a Friday evening, immediately prior to the furlough claims portal due to open on the Monday morning (20 April), when staff had already been furloughed . This left owners and managers faced with a weekend of recalculating entitlements, and the dilemma of continuing with their furlough claim as planned or waiting for the promised childcare specific calculation tool (we are still waiting!). There was also the issue that the new calculations meant some of the staff already furloughed were no longer eligible.
Going back to why the new guidance was a problem… It states that ’where employers receive public funding for staff costs, and that funding is continuing, we expect employers to use that money to continue to pay staff in the usual fashion – and correspondingly not furlough them. This also applies to non-public sector employers who receive public funding for staff costs’. The reasoning behind this is sound in theory – businesses can’t expect to receive financial support that duplicates support they are already getting as they would then be profiting from the crisis. However, it doesn’t take into account the varied business models found in the childcare sector, or that FE is not just about paying staff salaries, it is about delivering high quality Early Years care and education and all the costs associated with this.
In spite of protestations by the major Childcare sector professional bodies, to both the DfE and HM Treasury, they are holding fast to their story: that the revised guidance was simply a clarification of what should have been obvious from their previous publications and that it was never intended for settings in receipt of funding to be able to take full advantage of the CJRS. The guidance does however allow for limited access to the CJRS, enabling settings to furlough staff who would typically be paid from their private income i.e. fees from parents:
‘Educational settings that are in receipt of some public funding should only furlough employees, and therefore seek support through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, if they meet [all] the following conditions:
It’s pretty hard in a childcare setting to identify staff who never work with a funded child in some capacity, including with documentation relating to a funded child. Settings do not usually separate out their funded income and fee income to pay staff. Income is pooled and allocated to meet the overall needs of the business. The guidance does recognise this to a degree:
‘If it is difficult to distinguish whether staff are funded through free entitlement or private income for the purposes of meeting the first 3 conditions as listed above, then an early years provider can access the CJRS to cover up to the proportion of its pay bill which could be considered to have been paid for from that provider’s private income. Providers should initially use the month of February 2020 to represent their usual income in calculating the proportion of its pay bill eligible to be covered by the scheme’.
So, basically, if your typical income, based on February 2020, is split (for example) 40% funding and 60% fees, you can furlough staff up to the value of 60% of your total staff wages bill. So, if you have 5 staff, including a deputy and manager, whose wages add up to £7000 (3 x £1200, 1 x £1400 DM, 1 x £1550 M) in a typical month, you can furlough staff up to 60% of this; i.e. £4200. You could furlough your 3 staff on £12000 which comes to £3600 and claim back 80% of this from the government, but you could not also furlough the deputy or manager as this would take you over your £4200 maximum. Alternatively, you could furlough 2 staff plus the deputy or manager and still be within your maximum but in any of these combinations you would only ever be able to furlough a maximum of 3 people. How many you furlough will also be determined by how many children are still attending if you are open, in order to maintain ratios and other EYFS requirements. If your setting is closed it is a good idea to still keep some staff working, so there is someone available to maintain admin, reply to emails, keep in touch with families, check the premises etc.
This blog is already twice as long as it should be so I won’t go into all the other considerations and processes to undertake regarding furlough, lay-offs, short-time working and employment law, but I will end on a final point regarding furlough. If a member of staff has been furloughed they cannot do ANY work or volunteering for the setting or any organisation related to it, that either generates an income or provides a service so no, they can’t do a bit of cleaning, read stories on YouTube (unless uploaded beforehand), update learning journals or check in with their key children as ALL of these things are providing a service. This may be tough for the staff who may want to still help and support the setting but it is simply not allowed and if you are audited you could be made to repay the grant if staff are found to have broken the rules. It will be viewed as fraud by HMRC. (They can work or volunteer for other, non-related organisations, if this is permitted or not excluded by their contracts).
On that cautionary note I will end. Congratulations if you made it to this point. I’ve included relevant links to guidance below. I should add that I am not a legal or financial expert, but I have leaned heavily on my HR manager/CiPD qualified husband for confirmation and clarification, especially around furlough.
My name is Rebecca.