Originally published on 10th January 2021 at https://tribunemag.co.uk/2021/01/britains-private-nursery-mess by Miranda Hall
As we enter a third national lockdown, the government still doesn’t seem to care about childcare. All primary and secondary schools have now largely closed to stop the spread of the disease – but nurseries are being told to stay open. So, what is the government’s rationale for treating them differently?
Before the pandemic, nursery fees had gone up four times faster than wages, forcing many families in need of childcare into debt and 17% of nurseries in England’s poorest areas faced to close due to underfunding. Inadequate government support during the pandemic pushed the struggling sector to the brink of collapse. By October, 69% of settings were running at a loss and one in four expected to close their doors for good by Christmas.
When asked on BBC Breakfast why nurseries need to stay open, Michael Gove answered that it was to allow doctors, nurses and other critical workers with children to continue working. But this suggests he doesn’t even understand the policy: while schools remain open for vulnerable children and children of critical workers, nurseries and childminders are expected to stay open for all children.
Leading SAGE scientists have said that there is no scientific rationale for keeping early-years settings open while schools are closed. Unions, MPs and sector bodies are demanding that ministers produce clear evidence for the decision.The vaccine minister has claimed that there is “very little risk” in keeping nurseries open but the government’s own statistics show that in the week before Christmas there were new Covid cases in 829 childcare settings in just a week, with cases doubling weekly.
There’s one other thing that makes nurseries different to schools: privatisation. Matt Hancock told MPs that nurseries are being kept open because they are private and “would otherwise go bust.” He is right: 20 years ago, most childcare was provided by local councils or community nurseries but today the private sector accounts for 84% of childcare providers in the UK, with a growing number of mega chains.
In addition to high fees and poor working conditions, this financialised business model based on debt-fuelled expansion makes the sector particularly vulnerable to collapse. In order to make decisions about nurseries on genuine public health grounds, the government must be prepared to offer substantial financial support to prevent the sector from collapsing.
In the first lockdown, the government continued to provide the 15-30 free hours funding based on the number of children attending pre-pandemic, but this wasn’t enough to keep providers afloat. This is because a large proportion of their income comes from fees paid by parents. Even if nurseries stay open, they will not survive without additional support as worried parents no longer take up places, seriously reducing providers income from fees.
There’s a way to stop nurseries from going bust. A Childcare Infrastructure Fund, as proposed by the New Economics Foundation, would keep providers afloat through lockdown. A direct payment to providers would cover 100% of nursery staff wages and raise them to the Real Living Wage where necessary, in addition to meeting essential overhead costs.
Conditions for accessing the funding would include providing free childcare to the extent that it is safe to do so, for instance for key workers and vulnerable children, and preventing any staff redundancies. The fund would replace the government’s free-hours funding and furlough payments to providers throughout this period.
As well as failing nurseries in the first lockdown, the government failed parents who suddenly faced a huge additional childcare burden when schools and nurseries closed. Many were forced to take unpaid leave, reduce their hours or leave their jobs. To make sure this doesn’t happen again, as the TUC have argued, all working parents should be offered childcare furlough by their employer.
Childcare is an essential social infrastructure, reducing inequalities for children and removing barriers to employment for parents, in particular women. Early years provision is different to school provision in that it has been heavily privatised but we need decisions to be based on what’s best for children, parents and workers, not what’s best for business.