Much of the early years workforce experienced low pay and unfavourable working conditions long before the COVID-19 crisis. As nurseries and early years settings re-open, Dr Sara Bonetti, Director of Early Years at the Education Policy Institute calls for these long-standing issues to be addressed.
For many working in the early years, this crisis has added further instability to an already precarious situation. When and how the sector will recover depends on a new understanding of its crucial work for society and a funding system that reflects this.
The COVID-19 health crisis has shown that it does not discriminate: it can hit anyone. However, the consequences are much more severe for people with pre-existing medical conditions or other sources of vulnerability. Similarly, every sector of the economy has been affected, but the severity of the impact and the path to recovery are not the same.
The state of affairs for the early years sector pre-COVID is a key determinant of when and how this recovery will occur. A decade of policy changes, underpinned by the lack of a long-term strategy and of coordinated approach, has meant a missed opportunity to tackle some of the long-standing issues faced by the early years workforce. Low pay and unfavourable working conditions were already widespread before the crisis and the consequences of a two-tier system – with strong disparities between PVIs (private, voluntary and independent) and maintained/school-based settings for pay, working conditions, career progression – have persisted, if not worsened, due to increasing funding pressures on the sector.
Therefore, the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated some of the big issues which the early years sector already faced. For example, our research shows that the average pay of all early years workers is £8.20 an hour. With so many early years workers being furloughed via the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and receiving up to 80% of their regular income, some will undoubtedly find themselves without enough income to get by without other support. Even before the recent crisis, around 45% of childcare workers claimed state benefits or tax credits, well above the average among the wider female workforce. It is likely that this proportion has already increased or will increase in the coming weeks and months.
The government’s commitment to continue paying early years settings for the government-funded hours they were offering before the outbreak, the support for childminders via the Self-Employment Income Scheme and the 12-month business rates holiday for those settings that qualify have helped many providers navigate the darkest hours of this crisis. However, this help did not reach everyone and it is unlikely to be enough.
If anything, this crisis should have highlighted the short comings of the insistence on treating the early years as a ‘market’. The mixed role of government subsidies and parental fees in funding the sector is one of the unique features of this ‘market’ and one that forces early years providers to rely on fluctuating revenues. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis, this instability will continue.
Early years providers are faced with the impossible task of predicting the unpredictable. Will parents send their children back? When? For how many hours or days a week? How many staff do we need? Can we afford to pay their salaries? Will there be a second spike and new closures? How long is this crisis going to last? These are just some of the questions providers face every day. Nobody knows the answer to these questions and more uncertainties lie ahead. Changes to furlough regulations from July, requiring employers to contribute towards the salaries of furloughed staff, might further jeopardise the stability of the workforce if providers, already strapped for cash and with reduced provision, cannot afford to do so. There have already been reports of settings closing or downsizing which will reduce the demand for early years workers further.
Sector organisations have rightly called for the introduction of a recovery and transformation fund and other important measures to help the sector in the coming months. These extra funds will be key for the medium-term survival of the sector but the government must also look to the long-term. Realistically, stability for the early years sector relies on other areas of the economy stabalising. But by then early years providers might not be in the position to accommodate increased demand for early education and care if, in the meantime, early years professionals are forced to look for a job elsewhere.
And while it’s important to worry about how many professionals will remain in the sector, another urgent concern is how the make-up of the workforce may change. Which providers will have the resources to offer continuing professional development, or to afford highly qualified staff?
The sector needs to focus on thriving not just surviving. But this requires decoupling the funding system from the narrative of ‘childcare with the primary aim of allowing parents to work’, which has made a strong return during the COVID-19 crisis. This ‘market’ does not exchange goods and does not provide a service that can easily be disrupted without severe consequences for the well-being of children and their families. It is time to rethink how we support this vital sector.
About the author
Sara Bonetti is Director of Early Years at the Education Policy Institute. She is leading projects focused on the early years workforce, professionalism and leadership. Before moving to England, she spent a decade working in early years in the United States. She has conducted mixed methods research in academia, the nonprofit sector and in schools.
Sara holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership with a focus on early childhood education at Mills College, in California. Her dissertation centred on the challenges of, and opportunities for, career preparedness and professional development of early years practitioners working in policy and advocacy organisations.