As in Ireland, early years settings in England are now planning for reopening following a period of lockdown. Whilst some English schools and 35% of private and community settings remained open to provide childcare for keyworkers, the majority have been closed for several weeks. Primary and infant schools have been encouraged to open on 1 June admitting only children aged 4, 5, 6 and 11 years old. Those settings in the private and community sectors, (predominantly day nurseries, pre-schools and registered childminders) have also been asked to open on 1 June, but as I write this on 23 May, there has been limited operational and safety guidelines produced by government.
There is, understandably, a great deal of unease in the sector. Not only has guidance been slow to appear, but financial support, beyond the furlough wage scheme, has been minimal. There is palpable anxiety over the day to day implications of offering care and education to very young children.
On a personal level, as a board member of a Montessori nursery, I am acutely aware of the operational and relational challenges of children returning to settings such as ours. Over and above the physical, mental and emotional demands of ensuring children’s health, safety and wellbeing and transitions back into the centre, there are many other concerns. Guaranteeing a safe workplace for the team and communicating safety measures to families are imperative. Additionally, for the management team, the human resource implications, financial demands and legal obligations add a further layer of pressure to an already stressful situation. Navigating the tensions between best interests for children and families, with safeguarding centre stage, and the sustainability issues of occupancy and income are beyond difficult. These issues will be all too familiar to colleagues in Ireland too.
Against this backdrop, the commitment of colleagues I work with and know in the sector has been humbling. They continue to go to extraordinary lengths for the communities they work in.
Last year, based on findings from my doctoral research, I blogged about the hope and resilience of the early childhood sector. Covid-19 has added a previously unimaginable dimension to a sector already underfunded and undervalued. My research found that the advocates I interviewed shared common traits which enabled their courageous actions: namely critical (policy) awareness, professional confidence and feelings of self efficacy. Together these appeared to motivate the work of these early years activists.
For the coming weeks, the immediate demands will invariably be about reinstating services where possible, reconnecting with children and families, and rebuilding our teams and provision. Where possible I have tried to contact local and national politicians to make visible the plight of settings such as ours and to be clear that some will not survive without substantial financial support. ‘Get loud and persistent’ is my current mantra!
Longer term, I advocate for collective action, for a sector to use its voice, ‘facing outward’ (Urban, 2016, p.116). I think we need to keep shouting for early childhood education, not as a primary means of enabling economic recovery, but as a public good, as the right thing to do for now and for our future.
Urban, M., (2016). At sea: What direction for critical early childhood research? Journal of Pedagogy [online] 7 (10) 107-121.
Nathan Archer has worked in early childhood education for twenty years across the public, private and voluntary sectors both in and with schools and settings, for a local authority, and with two national early years organisations. He is currently studying for a doctorate at University of Sheffield.