22nd June 2020 All Posts

A fresh new chapter for Early Years

18 days into the process of re-opening, we wanted to shine a light on some of the positive steps that the sector is making and share how childcare providers across the country have got on over the last three weeks.

Consistent with our approach to the previous webinar we held we ran a survey across 3000+ of our customers asking them whether they were currently open, their occupancy levels they were operating at and when they felt that they would be operating at some sort of pre COVID occupancy levels. The results from over 650 respondents have been consistent with the recent About Early Years data that came from CEEDA earlier this week, suggesting that 76% of settings currently open have an average of 38% occupancy.

That was somewhat in contrast to a recent report from the DfE which reported only one in ten parents are looking to send their children back into childcare. 

I thought it might be a good opportunity to build on some of those survey results and see if those experiences were consistent with those on the panel. You can watch the recording or read the transcript below.

Watch the recording...

Meet the host...

Chris Reid

Chris Reid

CEO and Founder, Connect Childcare. Chris ensures that Connect stays at the forefront of technological advances to help to improve the outcomes of children in the UK. An advocate for research and development for the sector with over 15 years at the helm of Award-Winning nursery software, Connect Childcare. 

Meet the panel...

June O'Sullivan

June O'Sullivan MBE

June O’Sullivan, the CEO of London Early Years Foundation. The UK’s largest social enterprise, with 38 nurseries operating across 11 London boroughs. LEYF recently launched their #StandTall4EY campaign on Empathy day, which was the ninth of June. This involves early years settings across the UK to join together in planting sunflower seeds with children to celebrate the sectors move towards a fresh new chapter.

Juls Davies

Juliette Davies

Juls is the founder and Director of EY Matters, which is a 9000 strong network of providers and organisations, joining together to raise the status of the early years’ profession as a whole. Jul’s Chairs, the Weekly EYMatters Twitter Group, and works with an EY Talking Network of over 12,000.

Sarah Steele

Sarah Steel

Sarah Steele, the founder and Director of the Old Station Nursery Group with 18 settings across the UK. Sarah is also the chair of The Covid-19 Response Group, which includes 60 of the largest providers in the UK, who regularly, meet, and discuss approaches to the common challenges faced by the sector throughout the pandemic. The group has become a great example of the sector coming together to share guidance and best practice. And has been a great help to so many providers in a very difficult time. 

Read the transcript...

HOST – June, how have you managed the transition since reopening? What challenges did you face throughout the process and what kind of occupancy levels are you at currently?

June O'Sullivan

We kept some of our hubs open during the lockdown and although the occupancy was only between 6 and 10%, we’d not entirely closed our business, so the challenges to reopening were somewhat improved. It actually felt like we had some experience of what reopening felt like, and the learning we got from that made the decision to then expand easier.

Understanding the needs of the parents to manage staff

During the whole experience of pandemic, we made a lot of correspondence with parents and kept them in the loop. We probably over corresponded at times, with surveys questions and ‘how are you doing’ type letters and e-mails. When we went to expand into opening more nurseries, we began by filtering through the information we receive from parents. It allowed us to line the needs of the parents with which settings we would need to open so that we could manage our staffing levels and keep staff on furlough or bring back staff as and when we needed them.

Managing ratios, ‘bubbles’ and ongoing financial stability

CEEDA has been showing, on average, the sector is operating at currently an occupancy between 36 and 50% which is pretty unsustainable. This means that financial stability is a worry for everyone. 

LEYF nurseries haven’t got the most ideal buildings to manage bubbles as they are located in some of the poorer areas of the city. This has been an impediment to the numbers, along with the fact that parents are concerned over safety.

At LEYF we have 727 children and we’re operating at a ratio of 1 to 2.6 staff. We’re finding as we continue to correspond with parents, and as they’re seeing other children return, the parents are becoming a little braver and have changed their return dates from August to the beginning of July.

As our occupancy numbers are still low, going forward I think the DfE needs to start to show some relaxation around what bubbles need to look like. We have to be trusted to make good judgements about the numbers of children we will take on and how we manage to keep children and staff healthy during these times. We know our sector and we can prove that our health and safety is robust in fact that 37% of the sector stayed open during the lockdown and there are no cases of children/staff members with COVID-19. 

Managing new enquiries

We have quite a pipeline of new children to onboard who’s parents need to get back to work. We have resorted to hosting virtual show arounds. We’re having virtual conversations with parents and we’ve included more pictures of the inside of our nurseries on the website. It’s not ideal but it’s the best we can offer in these times.

HOST – Sarah, would you say that your experiences have been similar since the transition?

Sarah Steele

Managing resources in bubbles

Yeah, I agree with June about the constraints placed on us by having to operate in ‘bubbles’. It needs to be down to professional judgement going forward and the Covid-19 response group have prepared a letter to send to Vicky Ford to say this. We can’t keep being constrained by groups and resources. Most nurseries don’t have 2 or 3 of every resource. So if each bubble is not allowed to share a resource, we haven’t got three sets of cars, and three sets of tractors etc, so it needs to be a lot more adult-led.

Occupancy levels 

Our occupancy levels have been affected by the fact that holiday clubs aren’t open and children are off school. If parents have children at school age and their children are at home, then they are keeping their nursery age children at home until September too. We are currently at around 40% occupancy, but we’ve got to start somewhere. Balancing occupancy, bringing staff back from furlough and ensuring safety is difficult but we’ve had no cases, and I think that shows that the procedures that we’ve put together as a sector are working. We just need to relax that slide to improve the experience for everybody going forward.

HOST – I appreciate it has been a really difficult time over the past few months. The information is changing almost on a day-to-day basis which makes decision making very difficult. Juls, we were speaking previously about some of the positivity being spread by your EY Matters members despite the very difficult circumstances. Have you got any examples of how the sector has tried to see the positive throughout this current situation?

Juls Davies

Sharing Experiences

Before opening, there was an awful lot of fear about how people were going to cope with social distancing and keeping the environment clean. It’s been lovely to see people across the sector sharing their experiences.

We may not be in the same boat, but we are in the same storms so let’s continue to connect and share our knowledge and best practice.

HOST – June, you’ve recently set up the #StandTall4EY campaign which is to bring about a change in attitudes and, potentially, and hopefully a change in funding, but why is now, more important than ever to convey the true worth of the Early Year sector?

June O'Sullivan

Being positive in a crisis

We thought let’s do something positive with this crisis. I was fed up of seeing all the negativity on social media. I was offended about all of the fuss being made about schools and everyone else, but there was no clapping for the Early Years. 

We are part of what I call ‘the fourth Emergency service’. We stepped up to be visible to parents in an economy, which really depends on two parents to survive. I wanted us to have the status that we merit.

I was so pleased to see the sector pushing that message because sometimes we tend to get locked in a cycle of negativity. We don’t get funded very well, we’re often misunderstood and misquoted. We had to really battle with the furlough issue which was of great concern to us. But actually, every day, I had a Zoom call with my nurseries that were open, and I spoke to the staff and the children. And honestly, the narrative was just so different from the narrative you were hearing externally. I had joyful staff and joyful children. And you may think – what was there to be joyful about?

We basically paid for a ratio of 1 to 1 which meant that the staff could have much shorter shifts and longer breaks and I also paid for them to have taxicabs so that they didn’t have to come on the tube.

Owning the COVID Pedagogy

The extra space that the children were given in these half-empty nurseries was really appreciated. They were really delighted to be able to engage in what I call the ‘COVID pedagogy.’ We didn’t have any malleable play, and we didn’t have the real vegetables we would normally have in the role play area for example, but – there was time for conversation, and there was time for language extension, and there was time for outdoor exploration and there was time for imagination. Honestly, the children really responded well to that.

There was less pressure on the staff and children to run through all this stuff that they feel they have to do with EYFS lenses, but actually, to show what a great teacher looks like.

Childcare is part of the national infrastructure. We must really own the pedagogy. We must own the fact that we are teachers. Our teachers just have smaller children than those in schools and teaching early years is different to teaching in primary schools and secondary school – it can’t be just lumped in as one.

As long as we carry on as practitioners and educators and everything else, we will fail to do that. Because ultimately, our goal is to teach the children. 

That was very evident to me when, when we were locked down. The staff had time to use real teaching techniques such as demonstration and modelling, narrating and discussing, questioning and extension.

It’s important for us to capture those two positives so that the public understands the point of what early years is all about. It’s not locked into the kind of negative, funding only, kind of debate, which doesn’t always bring the best out and can in some cases cause divisions. 

Empathetic leadership

Taking real positivity to shape a much bigger national conversation. The sunflower for me represents a big beaming smile following the sun in all of its glory. I was very pleased to see that Nursery World has now started a campaign called standing up for the early years. So the two campaigns running alongside each other now, whether you’re standing tall or standing up, who cares? 

We need to be standing out there so people remember. We need to have a shared conversation going on so that there is a consistency in what we do and a power that drives what we do then there’s less risk for splits and divisions then because ultimately, we must remember that we are part of the structure and we actually teach our children.

HOST – That’s a fantastic campaign. As you said, whether it’s through standing tall or standing up, it’s really important that the whole sector comes together as a single voice and really pushes the strength and the importance of the sector. 
So, again, just keeping on that positive thought process and sentiment, Sarah, is there anything that you’ve managed to pull from the experience since lockdown that really resonated for the old station?

Sarah Steele

Showing the Government how strong we are

The crisis has highlighted to us is the very little knowledge the DfE has about the early years sector. The guidance they submitted discusses ‘headteachers’ and ‘schools’ and shows that they don’t understand our business models or our pedagogy. We’ve had so many different voices and representatives from the DfE and they have managed to get by listening to just teachers and unions.

But, it’s been really good seeing people come together as a group, as a sector, putting aside our differences and showing them that we are a strong sector and we’re not schools.

We’ve shown the government that we are the fourth emergency service and they can’t get people back to work without us.

HOST – I agree, wholeheartedly. You mentioned the ‘safe operating procedures’ and the work that you’ve done as part of the COVID-19 Response Group. Those operating procedures were a really valuable source of guidance for the sector, when they were really looking for some answers. 

In our survey, we asked a couple of questions around the safety measures and keeping both children and staff members safe. Around 84% of the respondents said that they were happy and that they did believe the safety measures were keeping children safe, and about 75% for staff. Do you know that the current measures are effective in keeping both staff and children safe and what approaches have you taken at the old station to ensure the ongoing well-being of both children and staff since lockdown?

Sarah Steele

This really feeds directly to the work we’ve been doing with the COVID-19 Response group and where we go from here. It’s slightly crazy to think that you can go to the zoo but you can’t go to school. 

I think most people are really confident about moving forward now we’ve got several weeks experience under our belt. Those parents who have sent their children back are coming in and seeing happy, joyful healthy children and staff so they are fine. 

The concerned parents are those children who have not returned to nursery yet. They are the parents on the outside who haven’t yet dipped their toe back into the water. 

We care for babies and toddlers who obviously need a hug if they are injured or hurt for example. If you understand and communicate that children can’t social distance themselves, it’s actually a really positive message to say, yes, we will be cuddling them when they need it but we’re doing everything possible to keep our children and staff safe.

HOST – How have you managed to maintain the communication between the parents that haven’t yet to come back to nursery to give them that reassurance?

Sarah Steele

We’ve done the usual… We’ve bombarded them with e-mails, asking questions and posting on social media. 

But actually, human interactions and reinsurance over a phone call can go a long way.

We’ve encouraged all of our managers to call the parents. It’s about speaking to another human being to understand why we are doing what we are doing. Emails can be misjudged and may lead to more irritating emails leading to more questions about policies etc. But, human interactions and reinsurance over phone calls can go a long way.

June O'Sullivan

Oh absolutely. We have called every day, and managers call their parents and talk to them. We’ve had Zoom calls and Zoom play dates. 

I agree with Sarah entirely.

One of the things that hasn’t been helpful was this whole hysteria about social distancing with small children and in a way, it raises the points that we’re both making that in the fact that the public doesn’t understand what early years does. 

I have avoided looking at the news for a very long time because it is just simply annoying, depressing and hysterical actually. I saw this image of children in a hula hoop with some tape around them. And I just thought, wow, they really don’t understand attachment theory, which is a central tenet of any well trained Early Years teacher.

This is the notion that children have to learn to manage and regulate their emotions and this requires the access to sensitive and engaged adults who understand when to engage and when not to. 

It wouldn’t be acceptable for us to consider that you could run a bubble, and not actually touch a child. 

We really need to explore some of the deep psychological thinking and the key educational philosophies, and the understanding of things like emerging neuroscience in the ways Alison Gopnik would be sharing it. And we need to actually share this with each other and the world. We should be really confident about our own subject. When you know your stuff, when you know what it means to be an early years teacher, when you understand how children develop and you can articulate it to parents to the public, then you’re in a much, much better position. Once our parents were clear on the rationale of why we’re doing what we were doing, and the impact on the children, it was completely calm.

HOST – Just turning to Juls for a second. Have you noticed any particular themes on the EY matters twitter group and the weekly chats that you have?
What sort of feedback, advice and support requests have been coming through from early years practices?

Juls Davies

There was a lot of valid fear and concerns from nurseries and childminders across the country. So we at Early Years Matters kept saying tell us what it’s like when you reopen, keep talking, let’s try and stay positive. 

It was so nice to see that those who were anxious were happy to be back in with the children and It’s been overwhelmingly comforting to know that the children are happy within their ‘friendship groups’. 

I keep asking people to fill my twitter timeline with photos of the children doing activities to keep it joyous out there and we’ve just run the Early Years Superheroes campaign to give them recognition.

I’ve seen a lovely idea in which one nursery gave each of their children personalised teddy bear comforters to support them through the transition.

Wouldn’t it be great to pull all of those images videos into a showreel to articulate the journey we’ve been on and the feeling of joy from the children? It must’ve been very difficult for them to have been separated from their friends for so long.

As you say, we need to stand up for early years by growing sunflowers. It’s a great image to capture and convey the sentiment behind the campaign. 

HOST – The final question to everybody. There’s clearly going to be some challenges for the nursery sector. What do you feel the biggest challenges are for the sector as we start to recover from the impact of COVID-19? & what advice would you give to the listeners out there in order to work through some of those challenges? 

Sarah Steele

For us, the biggest challenge is occupancy because as June’s already said, we can’t operate below 50% for very much longer. Keeping cash and keeping our staff employed is going to be challenging. We really need some quick changes. We need to be able to use our professional judgement about relaxing bubbles to allow us to have more flexibility for parents, and to make the experience better for children. We require government guidance on relaxing the bubbles and we are going to have to tackle holiday clubs, and after school clubs as well at some stage. it’s a good opportunity for us to review how the sector is funded and to have a really good look at how a sector works.

HOST – What about advice to any of the listeners out there that have opened, or are facing some of the similar challenges that you have?
Sarah Steele

Communication with parents and staff is really important. Whether it’s face-to-face or a telephone call you should speak to as many staff as possible. If those staff who are parents have got a problem with coming back, ask them why they don’t want to come back? Why are they nervous? Do they have childcare issues, can you meet them halfway? 

Understand why your parents are nervous and share with them the safety measures that you’re taking to keep their children safe.

We’ve been back 2.5 weeks now and as a sector, there haven’t been any COVID cases reported amongst children. I wouldn’t say it’s gone away, but think how much we’ve moved on and how much further could we move in the next month? In the next two months…

HOST – Brilliant, thanks, Sarah. Couldn’t agree more, June?

June O'Sullivan

I agree with Sarah, cash, occupancy, and staff balance are a challenge as well as bubbles not being bubbles anymore and the future funding of the sector.

Is the current model good enough to redo? The government in a crisis, pandemic, or otherwise, needs to be able to have a central response mechanism. 

And Juls was saying that, we as a sector came together very well. We do have a habit of doing that because we fundamentally like children. But is that the right shape, if this is to go on?

I guess the biggest anxiety for anyone out there is that we’re just hanging on in there at the moment with very low occupancy. If there is another COVID spike and we are forced into another lockdown situation. What is there to support us through this? Because right now, everyone’s got debt. Everyone was taking advantage of payment holidays or loans which means you have to pay it back. But we’re not going to have any cash coming in. The local authorities need to step up because they slightly misunderstand us. They become a little bit draconian at times, in terms of how they decide to allocate the funding. A national understanding of what we do from the local authorities would be entirely helpful and could be really driven by some sensible guidance from the DFE.

HOST – Juls do you have any particular advice that you’ve given to your network with regards to the challenges they may face?

Juls Davies

I tend to listen more to people, rather than advise as that’s where my strength is. But for me, I think, what I picked up is all about taking care of the well-being of children your children and staff. But also I think we also need to look after our leaders like June and Sarah who are making these huge difficult decisions.

We need to communicate and find out what the worries and the concerns are – and if you don’t know the answer contact your other Early Years colleagues in the sector. Somebody will be able to help you and advise you or share their knowledge. So please keep sharing, keep caring and get your parents on board.

HOST – Absolutely. I share the same sentiment. I know certainly in the early phases of COVID I think we were almost over-communicating with our staff members in order to maintain their well-being. And yes, it is true. all leaders need support in making such important and difficult decisions with such limited information.


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Marketing Lead at Connect Childcare