Updated: Aug 13, 2020
For years, early years settings across the country have struggled with the financial pressure of under-funding, rising wages and increasing quality expectations. It is no secret the many settings provide care from one month to the next without any contingency cash or buffers in the bank. Regular parent donations and fund raisers are what keep many settings in business, with thousands of early years settings closing over recent years as Government funding fails to cover the costs of providing the very best care.
So it’s no wonder that early years managers and owners are extremely concerned about the impact that potential Corona Virus closures will have on their business. As many parents are making the decision to keep their children at home due to illness or self-isolation, the fears around a financial crisis increase, particularly as we await confirmation around whether settings will still receive their free funding entitlement. The Early Years Alliance has called on the Department for Education (DfE) to clarify what financial support will be made available to early years providers affected by the coronavirus outbreak in England.
Local authority guidelines
Current DfE guidance (Early education and childcare: Statutory guidance for local authorities, 2018) states that local authorities should:
“ensure that providers are not penalised for short-term absences of children, for example due to sickness, arriving late or leaving early or a family emergency through withdrawing funding, but use their discretion where absence is recurring or for extended periods taking into account the reason for the absence and the impact on the provider.”
and that they should:
“ensure that providers are not penalised through withdrawal of funding for short term closures of a setting, for example, as a result of local or national elections or damage to the premises.”
In our experience, nurseries are generally one of the cleanest places you can be, as practitioners wash their hands and the children's hand more times in a day than you would ever imagine. Toys are cleaned and sterilised, floors are mopped and in general, settings are a clean and safe place to be.
But this doesn’t stop parents worrying about their children. At the time of writing, there have been 798 confirmed cases in the UK with current Government guidance to stay at home for 7 days if you have either a high temperature and / or a new continuous cough. Understandably, parents with young children are concerned about the spread of the virus, particularly in early years setting, where children are in close proximity all day long. Whilst setting managers are doing their utmost to ensure children wash hands on entry and provide antibac gel for parents (if they can actually get hold of some that is!) the fear of staff having to self isolate or being off sick is also huge.
With ratio’s to meet, it is essential that staff are available and this seems to be having a huge effect on the sector. One early years recruitment agency confirmed today that their agency work force is down 75% as agency workers are deciding to stay home! Settings are unable to open their doors without the correct ratio of staff to children and every day is a juggling act, trying to balance the needs of children, staff and families.
Many settings will have a policy which states parents still pay for their place if they chose not to bring in their child and at the moment, this is still a choice. However, if the Government enforce a closure, can the setting enforce payment? Will parents be happy to play for a place they cannot access? Who will foot the bill for staff wages, rent, insurance and the rest if parents aren't paying fees and funding entitlement ceases? There isn't a magic pot of money that providers have in case of such situations; this is literally a hand to mouth business.
A DfE spokeswoman said: “The government’s action plan sets out current and possible future measures to respond to the Covid-19 outbreak that are proportionate and based on the latest scientific evidence. They will be continually kept under review and the impact of all measures will be carefully considered.
“We are aware of concerns about the position of early years providers in the event of any Covid-19-related closures and will work to minimise the impact on individual settings.”
Whilst it goes without saying that all early years professionals want the very best for the children, families and staff, owners and managers urgently need answers to their financial questions. Moreover, they need clarity from the Government in terms of funding entitlement during a closure and knowledge of any contingency funding available to support financial losses.
The Early Years Alliance has useful information for early years providers here: https://www.eyalliance.org.uk/coronavirus-info-for-nurseries