In this latest post from our blog series highlighting how women's work, particularly in the care sector is undervalued, a nursery care manager shares her experience of having to stay open for business during the coronavirus pandemic, with little to no financial support from the government or guidance on safeguarding her staff and the children in their care.

Staying open in lockdown

As the manager of four nurseries, it has been a challenging time. Our nurseries stayed open since lockdown began – welcoming children of key workers, vulnerable families on child protection plans, as well as children with additional needs and for parents who need respite.

To achieve this has meant our all-female staff juggling their own caring responsibilities – with many having young children or caring for others.

And the background to this has been changing and conflicting advice from the government about the financial support nurseries can receive and whether we can afford to furlough staff.

Keeping our staff safe

We started by furloughing staff who were vulnerable and then those with caring responsibilities. But some of those have been unfurloughed now because of the demand for places and financial pressure.

The parents still bringing their children to nursery have been very understanding. They are key workers and on the frontline themselves. So they understood the challenge of working through the peak.

We have had staff test positive in one of our nurseries. We called Ofsted to ask if we should close – but were told they are not an information helpline. Overall, this was a stressful time for staff, who were very worried about putting their families at risk.

Social distancing in a nursery

We’ve been waiting for guidance from the government on how to socially distance in a nursery setting. We know this is important for preventing the spread of the virus. But the toolkit we were promised still hasn’t been published.

So we have taken our own approach – with zones and bubbles for key worker children and vulnerable children. This means keeping the same staff with the same bubble of children, as well as staggering drop offs and lunches. This way of working is really hard for us. It totally goes against the grain of how we’re taught to do early years education.

And of course, this way of working means bringing in extra staff and higher costs. We’re really worried about what it means for the business and whether we can survive this financially. It’s been a complete nightmare to be honest.

Parents are worried

We are not at full capacity yet because parents are scared to send their children to nursery. There is fear in the community. Unions and teachers are saying it’s not safe - so parents don’t want to send their kids back to nursery unless they have to go back to work.

Regarding pay

I feel really strongly that there is little appreciation for how little nursery care workers are paid. Staff are expected to care for and educate children with hardly any recognition as being professionals. I find that more and more qualified staff are leaving the early years sector due to low pay, feeling undervalued and overwhelmed by the emotional and physical demands of the job. Many are on in-work benefits, and struggle with the cost of living and finding a good work-life balance. They often work overtime, which is unpaid, which further impacts their health and well-being.

For us the largest proportion of our income is generated through the Early Years Funding which is received directly from the government, and does not sufficiently pay for nurseries to deliver these funded places. This leaves organisations with no choice but to pay minimum wage, offer only mandatory training and limited pay increases for those with higher qualifications.

These factors explain why it’s difficult to retain quality staff. We are often used as a stepping stone for higher paid positions, or as back-up to get experience for reception or primary years care. It is also very common for staff to leave because they’ve found better paid professions.

Valuing nursery workers

We are essential workers. We’re keeping the country and economy and health service going. Yet here we are still thought of as the babysitters. We still have not got the recognition, guidance and support. We’re still waiting for help.

When the PM announced changes to the lockdown a few weeks ago – nurseries didn’t even get a mention. Only schools. But we are educators, we teach children to share, interact with each other, be confident explore new environments and play.

Read more about our #ValueCare campaign.

Photo by Sandy Millar on Unsplash