Stay professional, control the virus, improve lives

James Hempsall
Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Like schools, early years settings were asked to open from 1 June - it was and is a big ask and full of difficult decisions, contradictions and risks.

There is much good we can do, and there is a moral purpose to our supporting of families; especially vulnerable children and the children of keyworkers.

Reopening will be a long-term process, informed by many personal and professional considerations. We must approach this as informed and professional early years practitioners, and play our part in controlling the virus, whilst positively impacting upon the lives of children and families. 

Extensive guidance, seemingly aiming to address all eventualities, has been published by the government. Information like the Planning Guide for Early Years and Childcare settings is designed to offer information and support for early years providers as they prepare to open.

It states providers can choose to use the guidance, or not. And they should decide how best to use guidance in their setting.

The past three months were unexpected, unpredictable and unparalleled. Many settings and schools have remained open and have provided vital services for vulnerable children and the children of keyworkers. These actions have made a significant contribution to so many lives: the experiences of children living in challenging circumstances; and those with parents whose vital roles have supported us all through this extraordinary time.

For many settings that did close, this was not only a difficult decision, but often one out of their hands. The process of weighing up the considerations for opening and closing remain - they are the same now as they were in March. Of primary importance is the health and safety of children, their families and the early years and childcare workforce. This includes their physical health and mental health. And within the context of the virus, this also includes the appropriate use of protective equipment and safe working practices. 

We also need to develop a deep understanding of the demand from families for attending and using our services, especially for funded entitlements, and crucially for the essential income via paid-for childcare. Demand, as ever, will drive supply, and providers will listen intently to the voice of families expressing what they want. Such demand will determine when and how settings will open or not. Childcare is changed now and has been for the foreseeable future.

We cannot have provision without our invaluable workforce - and their availability is under-pressure. Not all are able or willing to return, due to practical reasons such as their own lack of childcare, or their own children not being able to return to school. They could also be shielding or have members of their household to protect. Without clear information and reassurance from their employers, they may feel unsafe to return to work.  The available work may limit their choices - should full-time roles become part-time ones, or should they find being furloughed a better option for the setting or the team member? 

The finances in early years are finite. One thing I truly hope comes out of the crisis is someone, once and for all, untangles the unnecessary complexity of funding. We deserve things to be better and simpler. We need greater trust from government. Over recent weeks, providers have not only managed early years funding, but they have navigated government financial support, and changes in paid-for childcare. The future will only bring fresh pressures and difficult decisions without a new funding offer.

None of our service delivery is possible without access to premises. New working arrangements place great pressure on available space, and this in turn places limitations on what we are able to offer. Many providers actually aren’t able to return as their shared community premises are not yet open to the public. I am sure this is frustrating to many. Schools also need to ensure they look beyond their own immediate internal challenges and support their on-site and neighbourhood partners who provide early years and childcare.

The most important consideration, of course, is practice. This is where practitioners need to listen to guidance and use their own professional judgment to decide what is right for their setting, and the children and families they work with. All decisions should be made with physical and mental health, and children’s wellbeing and positive learning in mind. In early years, we have an important role in improving lives. We should not be reinforcing anxiety, or making people believe they are behind and need to catch up. Sometimes this could be the unintended outcome of following guidance to the letter. Instead, we need to be investing in children’s social capital. We have a new generation of children who have lived through this unique social experience - what can they take away from this? We should scaffold upon this to ensure this is a force for good. Without due care and attention we will only reinforce the worst aspects of lockdown, storing up significant problems for later. 

We should not wait for guidance to inform all our decisions; instead making sense of business and practice needs ourselves. The danger of Covid-19 are real, and easily could return two-fold. That said, we must be proportionate in our management of risk and health and safety. Our role is one that aims to counter the effects of harm, to minimise it, and to support people’s understanding and journey out of it. These are difficult decisions and everyone should tread carefully, yet confidently. So, let’s stay professional, control the virus and improve lives.

James Hempsall is director of Hempsalls Consultancies. This is an abridged version of his blog


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