With the UK having been in lockdown for over 10 weeks, it’s difficult to imagine how much the world has changed – both in and out of the Early Years (EY) landscape. And following the announcement that nurseries would be opening their doors to children once again at the start of this month has undoubtedly brought with it a wave of uncertainty and confusion across the UK’s childcare sector.
Chris Reid – founder and CEO of Connect Childcare – recently hosted a webinar for the EY industry’s professionals, exploring how the practicalities of the transition might look.
He was joined by a panel of industry-renowned experts including June O’Sullivan (CEO of the London Early Years Foundation), David Wright (Owner of Paint Pots Nurseries), Cary Rankin (CEO of Bertram Nursery Group) and Linda Baston-Pitt (CEO of Purple Bee Learning). Here, he sums up some of the webinar’s key findings and looks at how the next phase of the ‘new normal’ might look over the coming months.
The biggest challenges facing nurseries
It’s been a real rollercoaster of a ride for the UK’s businesses – from education to healthcare, no one has been exempt from having to adapt to keep their services and customer relationships going.
When looking at the situation for nurseries, Cary Rankin first explained how the panic-induced stages of lockdown – furloughing staff and understanding what this meant for the children, as well as parental demand – were tough. With David Wright also adding that the continued lack of information and mixed information proved troublesome for providers across the country.
Linda Baston-Pitt echoed these sentiments and explained that one of the largest obstacles the sector is facing – and continues to face – is the amount of emotional strain on practitioners, parents and children.
It’s interesting that while the underlying message revolved around there being a steep learning curve for the UK’s EY professionals, there was also a unanimous agreement that communication – between all parties – has played a crucial role in helping to navigate some of the uncertainty and to keep supporting struggling parents.
When it comes to the reopening of EY settings this month, it goes beyond implementing physical health and safety measures within the environment and extends much wider into the staff and child wellbeing arena too. In fact, this is arguably the most important area of all.
Of course, adequate PPE and social distancing guidelines should be followed, but David made an interesting point about there being worries children could feel like ‘prisoners’ under the new regulations. Which, of course, could be damaging to both an infant’s wellbeing and overall learning capability – therefore actions need to be judged on a case-by-case basis and always executed sensitively.
‘Physical distancing’ versus ‘social distancing’
Another valuable subject arose within the webinar which looked at the importance of keeping nursery settings ‘social’ – while adhering to all guidelines – for children, as interaction plays a vital role in their development process.
Some nurseries will even be creating dedicated ‘friendship groups,’ meaning they will only interact with the small group they’re assigned to – helping to show that socialising is still encouraged and not something to be afraid of.
In addition, some of the speakers also explained how minimising and reducing risk were paramount for their reopening, but they also expressed how there cannot be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ safety approach for EY settings. This all depends on the space and resources each individual practice has available to them.
Another notable theme was that ‘trial and error’ was to be expected. This kind of situation is new to the entire country, so putting measures in place will be a case of trying and testing their effectiveness. And Linda stated, it’s about looking at how we can take the Government’s guidance and work around it in a safe way, using a common-sense approach.
One of the resounding matters across the board was that communication should not stop. Throughout lockdown, we’ve all been encouraged to ‘keep talking’ – both in our personal and professional lives – and now isn’t the time to curb this dialogue. In fact, it’s needed more than ever.
Ensuring all staff are on board with the new measures nurseries are implementing is crucial, not only for the smooth running of the new strategy, and the physical safety of all parties, but also to help personnel feel supported and valued.
The same rule applies for conversations with parents too. Naturally, they’ll feel some apprehension about sending their child back to nursery – in fact, a large proportion of parents surveyed in Bertram Nursery Group’s questionnaire confessed to wanting to understand more about how the setting will be operating safely before sending their children back. So, making sure welfare and wellbeing strategies are communicated in the first instance, will help act as a tool of reassurance.
Cary spoke about the Group’s own approach of risk assessment and decision-making within its teams – reassuring managers and practitioners that this is a new scenario which everyone is adjusting to.
Considering staff welfare is a big part of the puzzle, when returning to work, curating a culture of kindness and compassion should be high on the EY agenda. And it’s no secret that nursery managers will be under immense pressure to effectively manage a new operation at the same time as supporting the welfare of the workforce.
Yet, with or without COVID-19 posing a threat to the country, it’s important to reflect and remember that people have their own individual ‘tsunamis’ – personal problems – at any time of the day, month and year. So, it’s vital that all staff remain considerate and patient while everyone is trying to adapt to the ‘out-of-the-ordinary.’
However, nursery leaders will undoubtedly need to be equipped with the skills to help them support their teams, as well as to build a picture of hope and success that reopening successfully can be possible with the buy-in from all employees.
There isn’t a rulebook which can give all the answers to this either – it’s a learning exercise for everyone.
Remaining calm and positive
Rounding off the webinar, June O’Sullivan reiterated that 37% of childcare providers across the country have remained open during lockdown, to look after key workers’ and vulnerable children – and it’s vital to recognise this as the sector’s starting point.
Some settings may have closed and others remained open, but while the journey into the unknown may feel daunting, she explained that panic and scaremongering is not helpful. For the sake of our children, someone must adopt a leadership role and navigate through with the best of intentions – and right now, this is the UK’s childcare professionals.