Are nurseries open in latest lockdown purely for profit?

Kate Hoskins
Wednesday, January 6, 2021

A weary sense of déjà vu seemed to spread after Prime Minister Boris Johnson plunged England back into a full, national lockdown with immediate effect.

But compared with the March 2020 lockdown, there are notable changes. This time around, the government will keep open early years education. We need look no further than the economy to explain the reason for this shift. Lockdowns significantly undermine the productivity of parents with preschool age children which creates problems for the already seriously ailing economy.

The unique challenges parents face when attempting to juggle their paid employment with the education and care of their preschool age child, are laid out by the Co-SPYCE (COVID-19 Supporting Parents and Young Children in Epidemics) survey.

The findings from the study show the key causes of stress for families in this situation were:

  • Their Work (54% of participants reported that this was causing considerable stress)

  • Their child’s screen time (45%)

  • Their child’s wellbeing (45%) (Co-SPYCE, 2020)

While primary children clearly need more support than secondary age children, early years children require a different level of support where emphasis is more care than education. Childcare for very young children (those aged three - 24 months) demands almost constant adult supervision and intervention and this makes working from home for parents of such young children even more difficult and less productive. Even the most organised and financially secure parents face enormous pressures when giving hands-on care throughout the working day.

Inequality has a lot to do with the decision. For many parents in low paid, low status employment, working at home is not an option. Simply building a home environment that meets the needs of young children on a full-time basis can be challenging for families working low socio-economic status jobs. From limited space to lack of resources, families that struggle financially face the double-edged pressure of needing to work yet lacking the material resources to adequately support their child at home. Opening up the early years means these parents can still work, and their children can access education and care while they do so.

Nurseries and early years settings were already being excluded from the debate about spring term reopening, even before Monday’s announcement. There has been a lack of “clear, scientific evidence for why the early years should be treated differently”. That’s not least because the high level of close contact needed to look after pre-schoolers raises concerns for staff who note the impossibility of socially distancing from a baby or toddler.

The sense of a forgotten sector, that prior to the pandemic was frequently overlooked in terms of secure funding and resourcing from central government, has only intensified since March 2020. For those working and leading in early years, the lack of government consultation only confirms their frustration at being ignored, “despite the fact that the sector has worked like a fourth emergency service throughout” the first two waves of the pandemic.

Keeping nurseries and early years these settings open, puts the expectation on staff to continue work in a high-risk environment. It is not surprising that ‘staff are “extremely anxious” about themselves, their families and the children they care for’, as they consider how the coming weeks and months will play out. A clear driver for reopening early years settings is an economic argument that places profits above people.

Dr Kate Hoskins is an expert in education policy specialising in early years, social mobility, and inequalities.

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