Recovery will not be like flicking a light switch

James Hempsall
Monday, May 4, 2020

The past few weeks have occupied the early years sector with getting to grips with the immediate practical challenges arising from the pandemic and lockdown.

Providers have been navigating the government’s financial support for businesses, and adapting services for vulnerable children, and providing childcare for the children of keyworkers. It is a understatement to say it has not been easy.

The primary challenge is the uncertainty of how long these conditions will last, and to what extent COVID-19 financial support, and early years funding will be available. Much of the public and press debate is switching to consider the notion of what a reduced lockdown might look like, phased returns to normal service delivery and the reopening of all schools and childcare settings. 

The local authorities I have been talking with report that around a quarter of their private, voluntary and independent early years providers are open at the moment. With many childminders making up that figure. All have done a really good job of sharing and circulating information to the childcare providers in their areas. What’s really important is we now make sense of this plethora of information and summarise it, with suggested actions and considerations – essentially to ensure we have common understanding and no one is disadvantaged through lack or information or misunderstanding. The support and opportunities available now must be grasped with both hands. 

The government support that has been made available to business and employers has been amazing. Without it, we would all be in a grave position. Many early years businesses, mine included, have benefitted from the Job Retention Scheme (JRS), Small Business Grant Fund, Business Rates Holiday, VAT payment delay. In addition, the confirmation of payment of full early years funding (whether settings are open, partially open, or closed) provides some peace of mind.

However, we are concerned providers are at risk of not making best use of all this financial support. One barrier is the management challenge and the change each setting and school is required to handle, as well as adaptations to respond to the needs of keyworkers. This is further compromised by mixed messages around what financial support is available to whom. 

I was very pleased to see the JRS extended to the end of June 2020. Timing is everything and as we hurtle towards the end of the traditional school year, and approach the summer holidays, thoughts inevitably focus on September and beyond.

Everyone running a business, including early years providers, are rightly concerned about the route out of the present difficulties. The return to any sense of familiar territory or service delivery will be a slow and uncertain one. We do not yet know how parental employment patterns will effect eligibility, need and demand for funded entitlements (universal, two-year-olds and 30 hours) and paid-for childcare. Recovery will not be like switching on a lightbulb. Instead, we will all have to carefully and continuously monitor our markets and parents’ and children’s needs, preferences and behaviours. Our market monitoring must inform nimble and constant change to the services we are used to delivering. This will have huge impacts on our biggest resource, the workforce. The management test will be huge.  

James Hempsall is director of consultancy Hempsalls

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