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Childcare and COVID-19: Why so Many Nurseries are Struggling to Survive

The Covid-19 pandemic has meant schools and nurseries closed for part of this year. They were only allowed to stay open to admit children of key workers or vulnerable children. The main problem is that the UK has many types of childcare and nursery provisions, from school nurseries to private bilingual nurseries, which are delivered and funded in many different ways. Therefore the impact of the measure on staff, parents, and children will vary based on the kind of nursery. If a nursery is operated as a business, and it goes into debt, there is a very real threat that it will end up permanently closing.

Types of Nurseries

State schools provide some early childhood education and care. However, private day nurseries provide most of it. In the state nursery classes that are attached to schools or part of freestanding nursery schools, nursery education is free for parents. State nursery staff are employees who are paid by the local authorities, whether their place of work is open or not. State nursery provision, like schools, will be able to re-open once the crisis is over.

However, most nursery schools and state nursery classes are part-time and they do not accept children under three years old. Therefore, parents who are working often use private day nurseries. The weekly fee at these facilities can be up to £80 per day. Some families are eligible for government subsidies towards childcare. However, the subsidies that are available do not usually cover the cost of the fees, since about 70% of the private nurseries also charge for extras that go over the government’s allowance.

Low Paid Staff

The private nursery sector also has significant staffing issues. Many employees who work for smaller nurseries are on an apprentice scheme. This has proven to be a low-cost way to offer employment. It isn’t clear what employment status these apprentices have. According to recent research, it appears that many of the staff at nurseries are employed at under minimum wage and have minimal work-related benefits. Like other businesses, many private nurseries might attempt to gain access to the new government loan scheme as well as take advantage of the offer for funding 80% of salary expenses. However, if the salaries of the staff are very low already, or under the minimum wage, then 80% of salary expenses are basically a starvation wage.

In these circumstances, nurseries in England have been struggling to search for strategies to help them recoup income. The advice on big company websites changes on almost a daily basis. Just Childcare, one large chain, asked parents on its website to keep paying their fees even though its nurseries were closed. It appears they have retracted that, and their justification for requesting fees is not available online any longer. Another large chain called Bright Horizons attempted at first to position itself as the go-to company to providing key workers with childcare, but now it is offering webinars on how to manage the crisis instead.

Recognition of Childcare Workers

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in childcare becoming much more visible to employers and the government. It is being seen now as an integral and essential part of the employment infrastructure and education in ways that it wasn’t before. If numerous childcare businesses end up failing, it will have a significant impact on our economic recovery. The contradictions and muddle of this sector in terms of the variation in access, the high costs, the lack of coordination, the low qualification levels, the poor wages, the lack of accountability, and the inconsistent funding, are being highlighted like never before. The childcare and early education system need to be completely overhauled. Like so many other aspects, the pandemic has shown the effects of neglect and austerity over many years. Hopefully, we can learn from them.