I was in Vienna for the weekend of 13-15 March 2020. By the Sunday it was clear public opinion and government policies were shifting. There was a risk we wouldn’t be able to get safely home. It was time to bring forward the flight and get back to home and work.
It was time for a plan – and then another one
There was surprise and a palpable sense of relief on the Monday afternoon when I arrived in the office. We sat down and looked at what might happen. Using our best guesses and a weather eye on the worst-case scenario, we scoped out how live training events, field work and projects could be put on indefinite hold. We agreed what we could or should be doing in the office for ourselves and what we ought to be saying to clients. We got it about right. Although by the next day things had moved on so rapidly, we had to review those plans and redraw our strategy.
Things started to stop
The world started to shut down. Events, training and projects were postponed or cancelled with no clear plan about what might happen next. The team kept in touch through tele-conference calls, at some point these turned into pretty unsuccessful video chats. It was great to connect, but often there wasn’t much to update.
We kept on working from home, doing what we could, and taking leave or time owed back. Of course, we were all staying indoors. We were balancing doing what was needed at work with useful occupations at home.
Entering the online world
One of our key projects (TALK Derby) moved to online and remote delivery. The funder, the DfE, set out the expected parameters of what should happen next so we had good assurances from that point. The package of government support exceeded our expectations. I cried with relief upon hearing about the Job Retention Scheme. That made a huge difference to our survival. With schools and early years and childcare providers closed or focused on essential services for keyworkers and vulnerable children, our income had stopped.
We decided to get onto the front foot by tentatively converting our training offer to online delivery. We started to get to grips with the technology as well, taking advice from others a little further down the line than us.
Making sense of guidance, briefings and tools
Then we started noticing the reams of guidance issued by government. We took the time to read and scrutinise it. We know from experience that having this time whilst having to do the day job would be a real challenge for local authority early years teams. This was especially the case as they were also at home, adjusting their delivery and supporting the sector. So this is when we spent our own time producing analysis and summaries of guidance. We were reading it, so others didn’t have to. We were able to highlight the key points, the pertinent actions, the updates and revisions, and shared our views and opinions to guide actions.
A community together
All this investment promoted a massive response. Our inboxes and phone lines were full of gratitude, requests, questions and I have to say quite a bit of reaching out just to unite on a personal, social and community level. Not since I set up the business 20 years ago had I experienced such energy and connection. The sense of community and comradeship was very strong. It started to feel natural being online with colleagues and clients. Suddenly a ‘phone call didn’t seem enough.
Our early adopter clients like Oldham started talking to us about what we could do to help their work through this. We workshopped the context and challenges and revisited what traditional support might look like, and what must change this time around. Hempsall’s also started bringing together clusters of 6-8 councils together for online idea sharing and updates. We were in this together and it showed. As a result, we developed the ‘Finding Your Way Through’ programme of information sessions, business workshops and one-to-one support – all online for authorities to commission. So far, we have delivered the programme in 12 areas and growing.
Hempsall’s Coffee Breaks
In June and July 2020, we held 30 online council early years meetings, clusters and networks. As we all got used to them they were starting feeling like a regular feature of the week. Attendance was steadily growing and requests were coming in thick and fast. In July, we launched Hempsall’s Coffee Breaks. These one-hour free sessions pick a topic (things like health and wellbeing, provider business support, business sustainability, sufficiency planning) and hear short input from Hempsall’s or councils. The remaining time, allows for discussion and questions. Now, Coffee Breaks attract up to 120 attendees each time. They have become an invaluable and unique opportunity to get together and focus on the day’s issues, with other people also tasked with the same challenges.
What next? Networking, schools, sufficiency and more
We have recently started a national programme called ‘In The Region’. It is regional networking for council early years teams – about two hours at a time. The first two sessions are free and then we ask councils to fund subsequent meetings. They are rolling out now and we expect a full programme across the autumn. Everyone has a chance to provide a brief local update and then the remaining time is given to discussion and questions.
We will also be launching our dedicated programme for schools getting to grips with their early years provision in this changing context. We aim to help them understand changing needs, demands and preferences, and to develop models of delivery that meet the needs of schools, families and the local childcare market as well.
Our Finding Your Way Through programme is under constant review and is adapting well to the new issues we find each week and is anticipating the challenges ahead throughout what will be a testing and long autumn term. We relish the opportunity to do more of the out of school sector and anticipate there will be greater need for one-to-one business support for providers moving towards the spring term. That seems like enough for now.
James Hempsall is the founder of Hempsalls Consultancy