Invisible keyworkers: why responding to the crisis in early years education and care during the pandemic must address working conditions for early years workers

Xanthe Whittaker, Kate Hardy, and Jennifer Tomlinson.

In the local newspaper they have a big spread about all the heroes you know, of the pandemic, and there’s not a single one that’s childcare; people doing exercise classes and people doing sewing classes online

  • Childcare practitioner, south-west England

When we stood at our front doors and on our balconies every Thursday to clap for carers, how many of us thought to extend our thanks to childcare workers? Throughout April and May, during the height of the first wave of the pandemic, nurseries remained open and childminders and nannies continued to work so that NHS staff and other key workers with pre-school-aged children could perform their own vital labour. Nurseries also played an indispensable role by remaining open to support vulnerable children and their families, ensuring children were healthy, safe and their developmental needs met.

Now coronavirus and lockdown measures have pushed an already fractured and volatile early years care system to the brink of collapse. A drop in demand has left half of providers concerned they will not survive the next year, with many of those closures likely to be concentrated in deprived areas. There is a growing acknowledgement that this is a crisis of care which will place significant pressures on working parents – particularly women – and their ability to work, with knock-on effects for the whole economy. What has received much less attention or consideration is how the crisis of the sector and closures will affect the predominantly female workforce – 92.6% who undertake this vital work are women.

We have consistently heard concerns from early years staff, managers and parents about safety their in early years settings, because social distancing is impossible to implement when the job requires handling and comforting small children.  Childcare practitioners have worked in close proximity to children throughout the pandemic as social distancing is impractical, if not impossible, and PPE often inadequate or inaccessible. While children are seen to be less susceptible to infection, increasingly, the science has made clear they are “vectors of transmission” and the adults who work with them are at high risk of infection. This is particularly the case with the new variant, with studies indicating that as many as 1 in 10 workers in early years settings have tested positive for Covid since December 1.

Childcare practitioners say the stress of working with this risk has had a damaging effect on their mental health and many head teachers and nursery managers are concerned about the wellbeing of their staff. In one maintained nursery school (MNS) in a London borough where infection rates are higher than the national average most staff in the workplace have been infected with COVID-19 as a result of work, with nine staff infected twice and at least one staff member on sick leave for two months suffering with Long Covid and its long-term health implications. Many managers and staff have expressed they feel there is no scientific evidence that early years settings are safe to remain open.  

Nursery staff are reporting an extension to their duties during the pandemic; importantly, their duties specifically increased in terms of vital safeguarding and diagnosis of special educational needs (SEN) and additional learning needs (ALN).  During lockdown, early years staff have been the only face-to-face contact for many children and families as other services and agencies, such as social workers and educational psychologists, moved their work online. This has placed them at the frontline of support and care for vulnerable and SEN children, increasingly identifying cases of vulnerability, including neglect and exposure to domestic violence. They have also been more involved in diagnosing SEND/ALN in children and have provided primary support for parents and carers to understand and cope with diagnoses in the absence of access to other social services.

Nursery staff we have spoken with almost universally expressed that they feel underacknowledged and underappreciated by government and the public generally for the critical role they have played during the pandemic. These experiences are likely to cause a rethink for many workers in the early years sector about whether they want to continue working in a poorly paid and undervalued sector. For those who do stay, it raises questions about whether their wages and conditions will deteriorate further, about what rights and protections they can invoke to stay safe at work and what say they have in the way work is carried out during Covid.

Work and labour force issues in early years education and care

Low pay, long hours and the intensity of work are longstanding issues which make working in early years care financially precarious for many. Despite low pay and poor working conditions, early years care requires a high level of professionalism involving both emotional and communication skills which are rarely recognised or adequately compensated. There is mounting evidence about importance of this work and these workers for early child development both during the pandemic and in general; another recent study involving Catherine Davis, who leads the Leeds Child Development Unit at University of Leeds, shows that nursery closures during lockdown have contributed to a widening of the attainment gap for socially and economically disadvantaged children. Despite this, like so much critical social reproductive work, the societal value of this labour remains largely unacknowledged.

Source: ONS Annual Population Survey 2018 in Social Mobility Commission, 2020, The stability of the early years workforce in England.

Nursery workers earn on average £7.42 an hour, which is below minimum wage and the Real Living Wage (£10.85 in London, £9.50 outside of it) and well below the average age for the female workforce (£11.37). The figure above shows that hourly pay for early years workers is clustered in the lowest bands; lower than comparable sectors such as retail, and well below the average for the workforce as a whole. Declining pay in real terms (5% between 2013 and 2018) and relative to other occupations has left an increasing proportion of early years care workers reliant on government benefits to survive. For nursery workers who were furloughed on 80 percent of pay, it is likely that the pandemic has brought about real hardship.

Possibly unsurprisingly, these factors have led to issues across the sector with recruitment and retention, where low wages are compounded by lack of opportunities for training and career progression. Over time, this has resulted in declining qualification levels among nursery workers — the proportion of early years workers in England with a qualification (9.5%) is lower than in other OECD countries such as Australia (14.3%), Japan (50%), United States (44.4%) and Norway (45%.) In policy discussions, childcare tends to be characterised as an entry-level job for female school leavers with low attainment. Conditions of work are no better outside nursery settings; childminders have the worst paid, most insecure work in the early years sector and the work of nannies is highly unregulated, with few employment or social protections, including limited access to government job and income support schemes during the pandemic.

The recent Spending Review promises £44 million for early years education in the next financial year, with an explicit commitment to increase the hourly rate paid to childcare providers. Additional spending in early years care is to be welcomed (although the chancellor’s announcement does not represent new funding committed to the sector), as is the recognition that workers in the sector need a pay uplift, but the government is playing catch up. For years the early years sector has witnessed pay slipping below the living wage for many of its workers as the gap between the rate paid by the government for its entitlement hours and the cost of provision has widened. If we want sustainable, high-quality early years care, the sector needs more than a cash injection – how the government invests in early years and its workforce needs a fundamental rethink.

The structure of the market for early years provision is heavily determined by policy orientation and how the sector is funded, which are political decisions. Early years care has faced years of underinvestment and underfunding for which childcare workers have absorbed much of the cost through reductions in wages and limited opportunities for development and progression. A consolidation of private interests in more buoyant sections of the market has left those more intractable aspects of early years care, including deprivation and complex social and educational needs, to settings where there are few resources to address them and where year to year government funding is uncertain. Dealing with these issues often adds to the workload and stress for workers in the sector.

The Covid19-induced crisis has exposed longstanding weaknesses and volatility in early years care.  But this could be also an opportunity to reassess the value of early years care for us as a society and for the economy and to value those who work in the sector.  Not only have childcare workers been made invisible in government policy and lacked basic recognition during the pandemic, there is an almost complete absence of academic research on their employment conditions and experiences of work. Getting to grips with who the early years workforce are, what work they do and its positive impact on the wellbeing of young children, their families and the economy and society more widely has the potential to change the way we understand and value this work. We need to know more about their motivations, experiences and plans for the future. Such knowledge will be crucial for building back better and developing more sustainable childcare post-Covid, as a foundation for a care-led recovery and for the long-term: a more caring economy.

One response to “Invisible keyworkers: why responding to the crisis in early years education and care during the pandemic must address working conditions for early years workers

  1. Pingback: Why early-years education must be prioritised in pandemic recovery plans - Corepaedia news

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