Every week, and increasingly so, authorities and providers are telling me that effective partnership working is making a real difference in finding a way through the current challenges and getting as ready as possible for a difficult future ahead. We do need to work together better, and so if this is not the case in your area, what can you do about it?
For the past four months, I have spent a good proportion of each working week on screen in front of local authority early years teams and leaders, and early years providers and practitioners. We have all been working out ways in which we can carry on with our vital services and together plan for an uncertain future ahead.
Time and again I see wonderful interactions and sharing of information with the common purpose of meeting the needs of children and families. Long may this continue. We have always needed to work in partnership. The challenges of change, economics and new entitlements have required us to do just that over recent years. At a time when the type and level of support authorities are able to offer has changed as well. But just when we thought we had had a rough ride through 30 hours, and with Brexit ahead of us, the coronavirus has topped the lot when it comes to significant challenge. Brokerage of places for children that need them and workforce support are both good reasons to collaborate.
The things I hear about include great interpersonal relationships and professional friendships arising from regular contact. Much of which was prompted by the need for weekly calls and contacts to collect data for the Department for Education. Government has turned its attention and concern to opening, closures and place capacity and use. But more has been happening in these contacts. Information, experiences and emotions are shared of lived experiences through this crisis. We are a caring profession and there has been informal counselling, certainly listening, the sharing of emotions and the acknowledgement of them. The pendulum has swung helpfully away from a reliance only on email and portal communications. It is resource heavy and DfE has asked this continues to the end of September 2020 at least.
The provider and the practitioner experience should and must be a voice heard in any early years and childcare strategy. And not just the loudest, more confident or biggest ones. These contacts, and others, I think are allowing the other voices to be heard and included and considered. I am told topics that were never talked about before are being readily discussed in a spirit of openness and honesty. To some extent video conferencing, now people are getting used to it, has made this more accessible.
There is a negative side though. These trials and tribulations do prompt anger and frustration and often this can manifest in attacks and criticism. It is understandable, but it is regrettable. Everyone needs to remember we are all doing whatever we can, to our best ability, and we all want the same outcomes in the end. There are people at each end of communications.
Returning to the positives, many more council leaders and decision-makers are realising the true and indispensable value of early years and childcare as part of their learning, social, equalities and economic strategies. We are a partner and a key stakeholder in this and local recovery.
I hear how local childcare sufficiency assessments (CSAs) are collecting much higher rates of provider returns. Response rates to surveys about supply, demand, need and parental preferences are usefully healthier than of late. These assessments are not only a statutory role of the authority, they are essential when they are used to drive and inform local childcare market management strategies. Again, a statutory role of authorities in The Childcare Act (2016). Never has there been a greater need for such research, strategy and market support and direction.
The dynamic range of change of use of our provision will be enormous as families’ circumstances are affected by the fall-out of this pandemic. Eligibility for the two-year-old entitlement may increase hugely as unemployment rises and Universal Credit claims increase; 30 hours eligibility may fall, stay the same, or increase as parents’ employability changes in a multitude of ways. Universal 15 hours may remain constant, but what about the demand for it as parents decide how and where they work or access services? How will parents’ and providers’ views on single-use settings affect demand and supply? And the paid-for childcare market, already changed by 30-hours could take a while to recover to anything near what it used to be.
Our relationships will be the vital ingredient in what happens next. Solutions exist in the sector and will need to be further developed, change identified and created together.
James Hempsall is director at Hempsalls Consultancy