The economy is reopening for many, but where’s the overall plan for childcare in a likely stop go scenario if more coronavirus outbreaks follow?
Yesterday’s announcement of pubs, restaurants and hairdressers reopening in England as the two-metre rule is relaxed for some has been welcomed and it’s a good thing for some businesses, but without adequate childcare in place it creates a huge strain on the parents who work for them. We’ve been receiving emails for months about what parents can do if their employer says they won’t furlough them if there is no childcare available.
Setting aside the issue of whether furlough could be a trap for some and put them first in line for redundancy, the problem is that it seems to be down to individual employers and, outside of the famed government guidance, there is not much parents can do if the employer says no, which they may do for any number of reasons.
The outlook on the childcare front is not good. Childcare providers say the two-metre rule won’t really affect them – the issue for them is the guidance on group sizes and, more importantly, the need for emergency funding until things are back to normal, given fewer parents are sending their children.
Providers have been shouting from the rooftops about the funding problem for months, but no-one appears to be listening. The outcome is likely to be more providers going under. The number of childminders has been in decline for years, although latest figures show the decline is slowing. If nurseries collapse, with the most disadvantaged areas likely to be hardest hit, that will make getting women to work and keeping them there more challenging. The impact on families of reduced incomes at a time of economic collapse will be massive. The long-term outlook is very worrying.
Yet, even so, childcare appears to be seen as a peripheral issue to government when it comes to funding. Early years were left out of the recent catch-up package, which may not be quite as generous as the government might have us believe, as was further education, including, inexplicably, sixth form colleges where young people coming up for crucial qualifications need support.
There must be a way of devising a system that works better for parents and providers and which recognises the central role childcare plays in getting parents, particularly mums, to work, which is in keeping with changing patterns of working and which enables childcare to continue in some form amid the disruption which is likely to be a semi-permanent feature in the coming months.
And then there are schools, which each seem to have different ways of doing things, for different amounts of hours, for different amounts of pupils, all for good reasons, but generally with no before or after school facilities.
Opening up is all very well, but the likelihood is that there will be new outbreaks and second or more waves. There seems little evidence of the creative thinking necessary to prepare the childcare infrastructure for this stop, go scenario.
Flexibility will be vital. Not just flexible working, but the flexible infrastructure to prop it up and the ability to use periods of closure effectively, for instance, to upskill the workforce on a much larger scale than is currently taking place.
My background is in higher education. All the talk there is of hybrid learning – a mix of remote and in person teaching – which can adapt easily to different circumstances. It’s not enough to import old ways of doing things onto online platforms, it is argued. That might seem a quick fix, but quick fixes rarely last.
Instead, teachers need to look at the different qualities online and in class learning bring and how they can enhance each other. Doing so creates quality education systems which are adaptable to the kind of waves of disruption we are likely to see in the future.
Just as with education, we need new models of working and work infrastructure which can withstand these waves.
As Darwin said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most adaptable to change.”