Check out my recent opinion piece for Early Years Educator Magazine
Once again, the debate over relaxing childcare ratios has risen its ugly head and once again the Early Years sector is rallying. Back in 2013 the rhetoric was the same. Childcare is too expensive, so if settings could be allowed to care for more children they would then charge less, therefore they parents’ bills would go down, but settings’ income would not be adversely impacted – win win all round, right? Wrong!
Unaffordable but not expensive
First of all, can you genuinely argue that childcare is expensive, given what you are getting for your money? Care and education our most precious resources, our future generations, the future of our planet? However, we should rightly acknowledge that it is unaffordable for many families, given that wages are low, and cost of living is at an all time high.
Nevertheless, the answer is not, and cannot be a pack ‘em in mentality. This is not in anyone’s best interests.
Imagine your boss telling you they want you to do twice as much work, but they aren’t giving you any more time, resources or wages to do it? Would you be happy? So why expect the childcare workforce to accept this?
I read a great analogy by Little Big Childcare in which they said,
‘’Would you approach a taxi driver, and ask them to drive twice as fast, so that they can give you two journeys for the price of one? Or maybe say to a restaurant owner, here’s a table for 4, I know there are 6 people on it, but I’m sure you won’t mind only charging for 4 since you’re cooking anyway.’’
Increased numbers of children mean increased costs
Increased numbers of children mean increased costs to the setting, including resources, such as toilet roll, cleaning products, arts and crafts materials and food, as well as replacing items and extra maintenance due to increased wear and tear. The risks of accidents occurring are definitely higher so the insurance premiums will likely increase too. Therefore, any profit to be made on taking extra children has already been eaten into.
Any remaining profit is unlikely to be passed on to parents as a cost saving on their fees. It will be needed to compensate for the horrendous, historic shortfall in free entitlement funding that has brought the sector to its knees. It will be needed to pay its already overworked, undervalued, dedicated staff a wage that is still nowhere near what they deserve. It will be needed to simply keep the setting viable and open!
Detrimental to staff well-being
Furthermore, caring for more children will be detrimental to the well-being of Early Years practitioners. We have already seen a huge fall in staff numbers. Childminding in particular has seen steady exodus. The sector is experiencing a recruitment crisis that has not been helped by Government changes in the requirements for GCSE maths and English GCSEs to be counted in ratio. Why work in childcare when you can get paid far more in a supermarket, as a cleaner or walking a dog?
Changing ratios may seem like a solution, but all this would do would add to the pressure experienced by those staff who have remained and drive them out too. Some flexibility, such as that currently permitted within the EYFS, is useful, to allow for exceptions during staff sickness for example, or if a Childminder wants to care for an additional child for a short period due to a parent changing their hours, but to make this the norm would be detrimental for all concerned.
In 2018 the Early Years Alliance released their report Minds Matter examining the impact of working in childcare and the early years sector on practitioners' mental health and it made grim read. Sadly, there has been little improvement in the intervening years and in fact, if anything, the situation, is now worse. The pandemic has taken a major toll on early years practitioners’ health, with 50% reporting feeling unwell due to work-related stress, according to a new survey by the Anna Freud Centre.
A Childminders nightmare
Finally, I want to talk about the children. I have saved the best till last!
Picture this scenario.
I am a Childminder, now working with the new relaxed ratios that allow me to have 6 under 8s, with no restrictions. (I’m not suggesting this is what the ratios will actually be).
I have Joe 12m; twins Kofi and Korai 20m, Sofia 26m, Ayesha 36m, Ben 38m
Drop Off: They all arrive around 8.00am. I do quick doorstep handovers. 3 parents apologise that they forgot to apply sun cream and one forgot their child’s hat. Joe’s mum reports he will be tired and cranky as h was up half the night teething. I have to peel Kofi and Korai off Mum, both crying and hitting me. This sets Sofia off and she tries to squeeze past the twin’s mum, out the front door shouting ‘I want my Mummy’. The twins mum manages to block her escape route as I’m grappling the twins. In the meantime, Ben calls me to say Joe has a stinky nappy and is trying to eat his poo!
I swiftly say goodbye to the twin’s mum, herd Sofia into the playroom and put the twins down on the rug, still crying, grab Joe’s change bag and head to the corner to clean him up – it’s not a pleasant sight and he’s not impressed that I won’t let him lick his fingers. He cries and this sets Sofia off again!
Breakfast: I pop Joe in his high chair with some marmite toast (food of the devil), and the others around the table with a selection of cereal, toast and fruit and we have brief calm as Ben chats to Ayesha about the chicks their nursery are raising and everyone tucks in. Joe drops his toast and laughs, then cries when I won’t give him the same piece back. Guess what, this sets Sofia off again. And then the twins… In his anger Joe shoves the toast back in his mouth and then suddenly looks panicky. I realise he is struggling to breathe and give him a solid back slap as first aid training kicks in. Fortunately, this is enough to dislodge the toast, but my heart is racing.
Free play: Ben wants me to look at the tower he has built but Kofi knocks it down before I can get to it as I’m busy stopping Joe trying to eat the playdough Sofia is playing with. Ayesha pulls at my top and I see the puddle at her feet, so I go to help her clean up. Ben asks me to read a story but I’m busy with the twins. I say ‘in a minute’, but I can see from his face he knows that minute will never come.
Out and about: I decide we need some fresh air. We used to go to a local toddler group but now I have 6 children I have been banned. They don’t want childminders ‘taking over’ apparently, so we head for the park. It takes an hour just to get out of the house; tracking down the right shoes for the right feet, getting those who are toilet trained to ‘have a try’ (not easy when they don’t need to go), making sure those in nappies are clean and dry, checking the change bag has everything needed at least three times, making sure we have full water bottles and snacks, applying sunblock, finding hats, putting shoes back on as some have taken theirs off again…
Once out of the door the herding metaphor comes back into play. We have to walk as we can’t fit everyone in the car. Joe, Kofi and Korai are in the triple buggy, the other 3 are walking, in theory, but Sofia and Ayesha are not used to being on foot and tend to wander in opposite directions or stop without warning. They also complain about being tired after 5 minutes. Ben is happy walking but is fascinated by nature and stops to look at every ant, ladybird and pebble on route. He used to enjoy telling me all their names, but I don’t have time to listen now and I need both eyes on Sofia and Ayesha. The park is less than a quarter of a mile, but it takes us nearly an hour by which time Joe has filled his nappy again and Ben needs a wee (and so do I).
Toilet time: I have to park the buggy outside the toilet block as no planners have yet realised that triple buggies need wide doors and Childminders do actually need to use the loo occasionally. I put Joe in a sling and hope his nappy doesn’t leak (it does…), pop Korai and Kofi on reins and usher them, Sofia, Ayesha and Ben through the doorway. Ayesha trips over Korai’s foot and bumps into Sofia – that sets Sofia off again. Ben goes into the cubicle and I remind him not to lock the door. I go into the next cubicle and try my best to spend a penny modestly with a baby strapped to my chest, cubicle door wide open and shared with 3 toddlers, by pointing out lots of fascinating things on the wall opposite, with limited success. I head to the changing table and keep the twins close, by giving them jobs to do such as holding the packet of wipes. I suggest to Ayesha that she ‘has a try’ whilst she waits. I’m part way through changing Joe when Ben calls to say he’s done a poo and needs me to wipe his bottom.
I sort Joe out and we go to help Ben who has of course locked the cubicle door. I find my emergency 2p in my bag and thank whoever that it’s a safety lock and we don’t need to call the council! I help Ben and we all wash hands and go outside. Ayesha pulls my top – I look down at her and see the little puddle at her feet. So much for having a try. Back inside we go to change Ayesha and I thank my foresight in adding a few pairs of wellies to the Mary Poppins style basket under the buggy.
At the park: Finally, we make it to the park. Within seconds I realise my mistake.
This is the first time I’ve been to a playpark without other Childminders since ratios were changed. Usually we keep an eye out for each other’s children and station ourselves at critical points, such as by the swings, roundabout, slide and gate, in order to avert disaster before it can strike. We used to meet together regularly and knew each other’s children well, even covering for each other when we were ill or on holiday. Since the ratio change however meeting up has been almost impossible. Our usual rendezvous spots can’t or won’t accommodate our increased numbers or simply aren’t safe and we can’t go further than we can walk to as we can’t fit everyone in our cars. We used to hold a dedicated Childminder drop-in at a Children and Family Centre, but the Local Authority have closed most of these across the county, leaving just a few, rebranded as Family Hubs (true). Sadly, ours was part of the cull and we have yet to find alternative premises (also true).
I let the twins free and they leg it. Kofi runs towards the swings, Korai the slide. Sofia is already half-way up the steps to the slide. I chase to the swings to rescue Kofi and turn in time to see Sofia on her way out of the gate that someone has left open, Korai shooting off the foot of the slope of the slide and landing squarely on his bottom, hear Ben calling to say he is stuck at the top of the climbing frame and find Ayesha pulling my top to show me a new puddle. I decide it’s time for lunch and that we will never leave the house again…
The sad reality of too many children
This is the likely reality for a lone Childminder trying to juggle and meet the needs of multiple children. It can be like this with just 3 children depending on their age and stage of development, never mind 4, 5, 6 or even more.
In the end no one gets what they need, and safety is compromised.
In this scenario I’m too busy at drop off to listen to the parents properly and provide to comfort and reassurance the children, especially the twins needs. I don’t even realise how unsettled Sofia is, or the danger she is in and were it not for the swift action of the parent she could have easily have run off and been hurt or worse
I’m distracted at the breakfast table. I don’t join in with the conversation, missing opportunities to support personal, social and emotional development and communication and language development through conversation and sharing in children’s interests, extend learning (hatching chicks), and support the children’s growing independence skills. I fail to keep Joe safe from choking by not supervising him properly as he eats.
Ben is missing out. He remembers when I had time to read stories with him and help him create elaborate constructions. Ayesha has regressed and now has regular toilet accidents. I need to discuss this with mum as I suspects it’s partly due to the new busyness at the setting
Going out is an exercise in getting it done rather than a learning opportunity. It’s barely even enjoyable. There’s no time for the children to practice life skills like putting on their own shoes or applying their own sunblock or discussing why sunblock is important. It’s a chore, as is getting to the park. I’m not available to Ben to share in his fascination with minibeasts and other wildlife, I just want to get from A to B in one piece, which is a feat in itself.
The park is an accident waiting to happen. I cannot keep the children safe there. There is not enough of me. It might be doable with a different mix of children, six 4-year-olds for example who have a better sense of danger and are able to follow rules.
Within this short snippet of a day these children are put at risk on numerous occasions and by the end of the day their parents will all have accident and incidents forms to complete.
I will have had few, if any high-quality interactions and engagements with them. There will have been little time for serve and return connections, vocabulary building, exploring mathematical and scientific concepts together, or even simply playing together. It will have been an exercise in crowd control.
The children are missing many of the opportunities to mix with other adults and socialise that they had previously as I no longer attend groups or meet up with Childminder colleagues. This is detrimental to both their personal, social and emotional development and their communication and language development.
Why do it? Sold out by Government fiction
So why might I have chosen to go down this route? I am an experienced Childminding professional. I know all about the importance of the first 1000 days and the value of having interested, available, responsive adults in brain development. I’ve read up on the EPPE and REPEY projects and other research so I should know better.
The truth is that I have had to bow to pressure from parents who have been sold a story by the press and Government of greedy childcare providers raking it in at their expense. Parents who have been told that Government have ploughed millions into Free Entitlement (it’s not free, it’s funded!) and Tax-Free Childcare and have solved both the childcare recruitment crisis and cost issue by relaxing ratios but those greedy childcare providers aren’t reducing their fees even though they could. This then set the expectation in parents’ minds that settings were overcharging (we are not) and so one by one settings began to fold.
This is a fictional scene, but it is one that could easily become true, should the Government choose to push ahead with its ill-advised considerations.
No better for group settings
The scenario above is based on my experience as a Childminder but the situation is no better in group settings where they already have worse ratios than Childminders: 1:3 under 2s; 1:4 2yos; 1:8 3+yos. It’s incredibly tough providing rich, nurturing, responsive and sensitive interactions and learning opportunities to three babies or four two-year-olds simultaneously, alongside feeding, changing and all the other practical tasks that need doing. I invite the Minister to give it a try sometime! Then we have the ludicrous notion that a teaching qualification enables one to somehow develop the ability to meet the needs of an extra 5 children, as if this qualification endows one with extra arms to cuddle with, more knees to sit on, additional lips to read multiple stories with, and the superpower to be in several places at once!
Increasing the number of children each practitioner is required to care for will result in in a reduction in the quality of care each child receives as practitioners can only spread themselves so far and they are already spread too thinly, with their own well-being at an all-time low.
Plea to the Minister
I strongly implore Minister for Children and Families, Will Quince MP, when he goes on his travels to research childcare models in other countries, just as his predecessor, Liz Truss, before him, to remember that they need to be viewed in context. You cannot pick up a model from Finland, Sweden or even Scotland and simply plonk it down in England. Our systems work differently, have evolved differently, are funded differently, stem from very different cultures and values. Where ratios appear to be lower these are not as straightforward as they seem. Qualified staff ‘in ratio’ are well supported by additional unqualified staff, whereas in England up to 50% of staff in ratio are unqualified.
Existing ratio flexibility
There is existing flexibility withing the current EYFS that enables settings, including Childminders, to use their professional judgement to make exceptions to existing ratios. The criteria to allow for this are set out for Childminders but let to interpretation for group settings. Ofsted’s stance on this is ‘just because you can does not necessarily mean you should’ which has led to inconsistent application of the guidance by inspectors. If this could be resolved I believe this provision allows sufficient flexibility already for temporary changes to ratios to accommodate short term family needs, cover for staff illness etc. as it makes it clear than such changes can only be implemented where children’s needs are not compromised. I have successfully and safely cared for four children instead of three, using an exception, having risk assessed. The children were aged 2, 3, 3 and 4 and all well used to the setting. I may have thought again had they all been aged 2 and under!
Solutions not obstructions
Childcare providers are not trying to be obstructive with their objections. They want to provide the best possible childcare; childcare that is both accessible and affordable; but not at the cost of children’s safety or the mental well-being of their staff.
The sector welcomes a dialogue with the Minister but one in which it is genuinely heard and actually listened to. The evidence is there. Even the DfE’s own research has previously shown that higher staff to child ratios improve children’s outcomes. Talk to sector experts. Talk to the Early Years Alliance, PACEY, NDNA, Childcare.Co.UK, talk to those on the ground like David Wright at Paint Pots, June O’Sullivan at LEYF – they know!
Start funding childcare properly. Invest in the infrastructure. Invest in the future. Show respect for those educating the future.
A tragedy waiting to happen
Finally, talk to the parents of Oliver Steeper or Millie Thompson and other parents of babies and young children who have tragically lost their lives whilst attending a childcare setting. Could you ever forgive yourself, Minister, if yours were the hand signing the document relaxing ratios that potentially led to another such death?
Children at Heart Early Years Training and Consultancy
This is a letter to my MP based on a template provided by the Early Years Alliance, with my own views and tweaks added.
Join the campaign to support and protect the Early Years by sending your own letter. The EYA template can be found HERE
Re: Help protect the early years sector in England
I am a Registered Childminder, one of many Early Years workers providing a vital service supporting parents and carers to continue to do their jobs while providing high-quality early education for the children in my care.
I am writing to you about my deep concerns for both the safety and financial viability of the early education and childcare sector in England during the current national lockdown and beyond.
As you will know, the government has announced that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders in England are expected to remain open to all children at a time when all schools have been instructed to close to all but the children of critical workers and vulnerable children. Government however has failed to follow this through with appropriate safeguards for the sector, leaving us vulnerable, not just to the disease, but also the financial impact of lockdown.
Young children cannot and should not be expected to social distance. Close contact is a necessary feature of the care of young children. Touch and affection are essential for children’s emotional development and well-being, and intimate care to meet physical needs is also an integral part of looking after a young child.
While ministers have argued that early years settings are ‘low-risk environments’, the government has so far failed to provide any specific evidence about the risk implications of the new variant of Covid-19 in early years settings among both children and adults. It also neglects to account for the number of children who are asymptomatic, or whose parents have chosen to isolate symptomatic children rather than put them through the trauma of testing. Children in themselves may be low risk, but just as in schools, they act as vectors for transmission and their close contact within a setting and inevitable mixing means they are potentially spreading the virus to their families, staff and staff families, and those of registered Childminders too.
In addition, as you may be aware home testing kits for asymptomatic testing have now been made available to all primary schools, secondary schools and colleges, as well as maintained nursery schools and classes, while private and voluntary providers, including Childminders, have been told that we will instead be given 'priority' access to community testing centres, despite many of these only being open during working hours and so inaccessible to the childcare workforce, already working long and often extra hours. The only alternative is for already short staffed and stretched settings to release staff during working hours to visit test centres, which may result in them having to restrict numbers in order to maintain ratios, or even to have to close, especially in the case of Childminders. Childminders are further disadvantaged, being unable to register on the priority portal, due to being self-employed.
This is grossly unfair treatment and will result in many early years providers being unable to access asymptomatic testing at a time when we have been asked to remain open to all families and are doing all we can to stop the spread of the virus
Leading early years organisations the Early Years Alliance, Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) and the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) have jointly called for the government to take the following steps to ensure that early years and childcare providers can remain open safely:
• provide clear scientific evidence on the risk implications of staying open for early years and childcare practitioners, including data on transmission rates and other key risk indicators
• prioritise those working in early years and childcare for Covid-19 vaccinations
• roll out mass asymptomatic testing at all early years and childcare settings, including Childminders, via the provision of home-testing kits
• reinstate early entitlement funding support for settings who have been forced to close or have seen a fall in the demand for funded places
• introduce targeted funding for providers reliant on private income who have suffered from falls in parental demand
As my parliamentary representative, I am asking you to speak on my behalf and call on the Treasury and the DfE to commit to implementing the above recommendations as a matter of urgency, and ensure that all hard-working providers in our constituency have the practical and financial support we need to continuing delivering the care and education that is so vital to our community.
If you would like to find out more about our situation, please get in touch.
I have been working in the Early Years sector for 20 years, after spending 13 years as a children’s bookseller and 3 years training to be a primary school teacher. In that time, I have seen trends and fads go around and come around. Some endure, particularly those based on a sound understanding of child development and a solid pedagogy. Others are popular for a while then wither away.
The popularity of topics has waxed and waned throughout my career and those who oppose them do so vociferously. As a new practitioner I embraced topics wholeheartedly and I look back at my early files fondly, with their planning webs linking each topic to areas of learning, differentiation for ages and photos of the ‘finished’ product. Gradually, however, as I interacted with other practitioners and undertook training, I absorbed new ideas about child development and different philosophies, and consequently, my passion for topics dwindled. I discovered Froebel, the Reggio Emilia approach, loose parts, Te-Whariki etc. and my own pedagogy responded, developing into one that was more child-centred and predominantly play-based. I started planning in the moment before I knew that this was even a ‘thing’.
Topics are currently out of favour in much of the Early Years community. The arguments against them are strong and valid. Topics start from the adult and reflect adult interests rather than the child’s. Topics are based upon adult ideas of what a child needs to know and should be interested in. Topics do not support the concepts of child-initiated play supporting curious, self-directed exploration and experimentation. Topics are not child centric.
However, the arguments in defence of topics are worth considering. Children can be enthused and inspired by topic themes. They are introduced to new ideas and concepts they might not otherwise have encountered. Their interests can be supported, recognised and shared with staff and peers. Topics can provide structure and a sense of security for both children and practitioners, working with a familiar format and knowing what to expect.
For me, as in many areas, it is a question of balance; of avoiding extremes. I appreciate and advocate many aspects of the Curiosity Approach, for example, with its focus on authentic, natural materials and open-ended play, but at the same time, I recognise the value of plastic toys and resources, and my setting encompasses both. I start from the child: what do they play with and become deeply involved with? The resource’s worth comes from this, rather than the material it is made from.
A new philosophy?
More recently I have been pondering about the value of topics in Early Years settings. I have concluded that topics are not inherently bad, despite the backlash against them. It is how they are approached and used that makes the difference. For me topics should be developed in two ways:
Topics must engage and enthuse. If they don’t, they should be adapted or abandoned. Topics should not overwhelm the setting and be the only thing happening or available. Choice is essential. If a child is not interested in the current topic their own interests are still important and must be supported and validated. Know your children and what it is that truly fascinates them; is it the train or the track? Is it the rotation of the wheels or the way the track connects? Be guided by the child.
Topics can start with a new idea; a stimulus; an invitation to play. Sow a seed by reading a story or setting up a small world invitation and observe. Has the children’s interest been ignited? Would they embrace more content on the same subject? How can you devise opportunities that follow their curiosity in this new subject whilst encompassing their existing interests and fascinations? How can you do this in a setting where multiple children have very different interests and fascinations?
I recognise that children can and do enjoy some adult planned activities, especially those in which the adult is directly involved, but only as long as they are not forced to participate and are empowered to express their own ideas and thoughts in the process: no red flowers and green leaves imposed by an adult agenda.
This takes considerable skill on the part of the adult. It is all too easy for their own enthusiasm for a subject to take over and the agenda shift in their favour. Constant observation and reflection are essential to ensure that the child remains at the centre, rather than the topic theme. Go where the children lead; respect their ideas and follow their path. This may take you totally ‘off-topic’ but that is fine. It may lead to a whole new topic; that is also fine. In the Reggio Emilia approach children work on projects in a similar way. Projects come from the children but may be as a result of a stimulation provided by an adult. There may be one, primary project, or multiple projects. The key factor is that in all cases these projects are child-directed.
It is essential as a practitioner, that you constantly question your approach and ideas. No approach is necessarily wrong (or right). It is the intent and implementation behind the approach that count. Think about the why and how. Why are you doing it this way? How does this benefit the child? What is the impact? Don’t do something because that is how it has always been done, or because it is how you were taught, or because it feels safe and comfortable. Do it because you know that it supports the child’s learning, development and interests. Do it because it respects the child’s individuality and rights. Do it because it will challenge, involve and engage. Do it because it will inspire joy, awe and wonder.
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.
On Friday the government issued a document outlining how it expected Registered Childcare settings to claim support during the Coronavirus pandemic. This included a major change in previously published policy, by adding a number of restrictions to claims where settings were in receipt of Early Years Free Entitlement funding.
Both the timing and content of this document have sent waves of panic and anger throughout the .sector. For a minority the new measures may not have a serious impact, but for the majority they will will be potentially devastating and could lead to significant numbers of redundancies and closures.
The document continues to be interpreted and misinterpreted across Social Media, with some believing it to be fair and others an insult. There is little clarity on how to calculate what can actually be claimed, and the example given in the document is of little help in this. For example, it does not make clear if 100% of the private element of the paybill can be offset against the furlough claim or only 80%, and many, I believe erroneously, think that they can simply allocate this money against the total furlough bill, rather than against the individual salaries of each person furloughed. The example also fails to explain how NI and pensions contributions are to be dealt with such as if they must be included as part of the private income 'pot' or can be paid on top of this. It appears we must wait for the promised calculation tool for clarity on this. I would suggest a policy of 'watch and wait' in the interim. Don't hit that claim submission button on Monday morning when the portal opens as new guidance may be forthcoming, especially given the level of lobbying that has ensued.
The suggestion that receiving both funding and furlough monies is tantamount to fraud, and will lead to settings making a profit out of the current crisis has been touted, and angrily refuted. Some settings, especially those currently closed, and those whose primary income is FE may, on the face of it, appear to be making a profit but I do not believe that they are profiteering, as implied. Income now is not just for now - it is to see those settings through until Christmas, so profits that would normally be made in the summer term create reserves to ensure the ongoing survival of the business. We are not party to their financial position or know what other income streams they have lost through closure, such as parent fundraising. We don't know how much rent they are being charged and what other debts they may have. The reality is that there are many, many variables and we all operate differently so cannot and must not judge others based on our own experiences or business operations.
Let us stop speculating on who stands to make what out of this saga. I think the mud-slinging must stop and we should pull together - a united front, a united sector. #4thEmergencyService
This is the letter I have sent to my MP using the Early Years Alliance template https://www.eyalliance.org.uk/take-action-government-u-turn-funding-and-furloughing?fbclid=IwAR2dhcTK8JF8UgfOMh1anF8AKGzIuNpI92Xk6uGWG1kx5tvUpw04v-1-X6I
Please feel free to copy or write your own.
Re: Government U-turn on how childcare providers are able to benefit from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS)
I am a Childminder & Early Years Trainer/Consultant at Children at Heart. I am one of those Childminders who has taken the very difficult decision to close my setting, having no eligible children in my care, and vulnerable people in my household. However I continue to support my minded children through regular online contact, and in my role as a trainer and consultant, am supporting many colleagues across the childcare sector, both open and closed.
Registered childcarers provide a vital service supporting parents and carers to work or cope with lockdown while providing a high quality early education for the children in their care.
Department for Education guidance which has been in place since 24 March 2020 explicitly stated that: "The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme means that for employees who are not working but kept on payroll, the government will contribute 80% of each worker’s wages of up to £2,500, backdated to 1 March 2020. Settings can access this scheme while continuing to be paid the early entitlements funding via local authorities."
This gave a clear assurance that nurseries, pre-schools and childminders with assistants could benefit from both schemes.
However, under new guidance ('Coronavirus (COVID-19): financial support for education, early years and children’s social care') released on 17 April 2020, the government is now placing new limits on the level of support childcare providers in receipt of 'free entitlement' funding can benefit from. This change has been made at the last minute when many providers have already budgeted and planned, and in some cases, furloughed staff.
The early years sector was already struggling financially before the coronavirus crisis. This removal of the support that has been promised for weeks could mean mass redundancies and setting closures.
I have serious concerns regarding the guidance, 'Coronavirus (COVID-19): financial support for education, early years and children’s social care', published on Friday.
First of all, I am appalled at the timing of its release: on a Friday evening when all departments are closed, with a whole weekend of speculation and no support. Not just this, but on the Friday evening immediately prior to the opening of the CJRS portal, on Monday 20th April. Setting managers, who had already placed staff on furlough, following existing guidance, will have calculated their claims, ready to submit, but are now in the position of not only having to recalculate, but also reconsider whether staff are still eligible to be furloughed, and if not, face the fact that they may have to make them redundant after all.
The reference to a calculation tool being developed is not at all helpful: it is needed now, not at some nebulous point in the future.
It is grossly unfair to place this burden on the sector at such short notice, weeks after having made assurances that childcare settings could access the CJRS whilst continuing to receive FE funding, with no reference to caveats or restrictive conditions. Settings will have negotiated terms with staff, including topping up their furlough pay to 100%, and may not now be able to honour this.
I strongly believe that this situation should never have arisen in the first place. The CJRS guidance document does state that organisations in receipt of public funding TO PAY STAFF should not utilise the option to furlough staff. However, Early Years Free Entitlement (FE) funding is not, and never has been, a payment for staff wages. FE funding is not index linked and has never risen in line with increases to National Minimum Wage. The funding is there to provide eligible children with Early Years education and childcare - it covers ALL associated costs in delivering this service, such as accommodation, resources, legal responsibilities (insurance, registration fees etc), training costs, food etc. as well as staff costs. The clause within the CJRS guidance should not therefore apply to the PVI childcare sector at all.
This does not even take into account the fact that the FE falls way short of the actual costs involved in delivering a funded childcare place. In my own setting there is a shortfall of 48p per hour between what I receive and my costs. This represents a loss of over £1600 for the children as a Childminder I am able to care for - scale this up to a preschool or day nursery and this figure is even more significant.
In addition, it is completely impossible to separate out which staff deliver funded care and which are paid for by fees, as staff typically work with all children in a setting - even those in baby rooms often cover in other areas for breaks, holiday and illness - and many children access a mix of funded and paid for care.
There are numerous issues linked to the 'Coronavirus (COVID-19): financial support for education, early years and children’s social care' guidance:
Different Local Authorities have different mechanisms for paying funding - some pay monthly, some termly, some like West Sussex pay a percentage at the beginning of term, and the balance after half term. Some are continuing to pass on the full funding to all settings, closed or open. Others have reduced payments to closed settings and increased them or made gratia payments to open settings. Some have said settings may retain funding if a child attends elsewhere and are then also paying the new setting, whilst others are advising the new setting to offset the child against funding received for a non-attending child. Some LAs are saying that the old setting must transfer funding to the new setting. There is no consistency.
Some settings are term time only so the funding only relates to the 38 weeks they are open. This also applies to any private income, which makes using February problematic, given that this month includes half term. It is also an issue for settings that are open all year but do not stretch their funding.
Some settings, open all year, stretch their funding to include holidays. Some invoice fee paying parents monthly, some termly or half-termly. Some invoice in arrears for actual hours used, some in advance for booked hours. This impacts on February as the fees paid may therefore be for 3 weeks of February or 4 of January, not even taking into account the fact that February is a short month and that some months are 5 weeks. Some annualise fees so parents pay the same on each invoice. Some settings are still receiving private fees; as retainers or voluntary payments, but many are not. A few are eligible for the Small Business Grant but many are not. Few can get loans as they cannot demonstrate their business will be sustainable and viable in the future. The playing field is not even, and with the exception of a few larger chains, very few settings will have reserves to cover their losses during this time, especially as they will be relying on profits from spring and summer terms to see them through the leanness of July and August when income drops and gradually builds from the autumn term to January.
Some settings employ staff on term time only contracts, others on zero hours or as bank staff. Others annualise term time wages to provide a regular monthly income.
All of these many variables make basing any calculations on a single month unworkable, and unfair.
The document also states that any future calculations must take into account any changes in the level of FE received but must not be adjusted for any private income changes. This is profoundly unfair as it will seriously impact on the level of support a setting can access.
I am not a manager, accountant or HR trained but I know there will be those who are who will be able to argue the care far more eloquently than I , and provide exemplar figures to illustrate the seriousness of this situation. What I do know however, is that many, many of my colleagues are putting their own health and that of their families at significant risk by caring for children of front line workers, in the case of childminders doing this in their own homes, in order that those workers can do their jobs. Registered Childcarers are the 4th Emergency Service. Our sector is not looking to make a profit out of this crisis, and it is frankly insulting that this has even been suggested. We are simply trying to survive so that come the end of lockdown when parents are returning to work there is still a sector out there to provide childcare to enable them to do this.
Will you speak on my behalf and raise these concerns to the Treasury as a matter of urgency?
My name is Rebecca.