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Childcare providers are angry about last-minute tweaks to government advice on its furlough scheme and how it applies to them.
Childcare providers are concerned that changes to the government guidance on furloughing workers could leave them out of pocket and make it harder for them to furlough staff, with more than 70,000 people having signed a petition against them over the weekend.
The Early Years Alliance, which says around 3,000 providers and parents have written to their local MP on the issue since Friday, accused the government of backtracking on guarantees of financial support for childcare providers during the coronavirus crisis, describing the updated guidance as a ‘kick in the teeth’ for the sector and warning that it is likely to lead to nursery closures and threaten the long-term viability of the sector.
Previous guidance said nurseries and other providers could continue to receive ‘free entitlement’ funding for children not attending their setting during the pandemic and that they would also be able to benefit from the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which provides grants covering 80% of monthly salary costs for staff members employed but not working.
However, new DfE guidance on financial support for education, early years and children’s social care gives a number of instances where early years providers will not be able to furlough staff. It also suggests that in some cases, early years providers will only be able access the Job Retention Scheme “to cover up to the proportion of its pay bill which could be considered to have been paid for from that provider’s private income”, ie not the ‘free entitlement’ funding. The Alliance says that this means that many nurseries won’t be able to get full access to both schemes.
The guidance states that public sector organisations supported by public funding should not furlough staff. For those which have some private funding only those who cannot be redeployed during the pandemic and work in areas where they are not needed, do not look after key worker children, where their salary is not made up of public funding and who would otherwise be made redundant can be furloughed.
“Educational settings that are in receipt of some public funding should only furlough employees, and therefore seek support through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, if they meet the following conditions:
The Government says it is developing a tool to help childcare providers understand what funding support they may be eligible for.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “It is completely unacceptable that having given a clear and explicit assurance to childcare providers that they would be able to rely on financial support from both ‘free entitlement’ funding and the Job Retention Scheme during the coronavirus crisis, the government is now saying that it will be watering down this support.
“Early years businesses will have made significant financial plans and decisions based on the guidance already published, and many will have already started furloughing staff. It is simply too late for the government to start adding new caveats, conditions and limits now.
“For early years providers across the country who have already struggled for years as a result of government underfunding, to be told weeks into this crisis that the support they were promised may be far less than they were led to believe is a complete kick in the teeth. What the government is proposing would have a devastating impact on childcare settings, and in the worst cases, could lead to permanent closures across the sector.”
He called for an urgent rethink so that childcare providers can fully access both schemes. He said: “Many childcare professionals are putting their own health and wellbeing at risk by continuing to work on the frontline during this pandemic to ensure that critical workers and vulnerable children have the childcare they need, while others who have taken the difficult decision to close are still working hard to support their families remotely. For the government to treat the sector with such a lack of respect and fairness at this time truly beggars belief.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said the Government was offering financial support to nurseries during the period of closures. For instance, it is continuing to fund the free childcare entitlements such as the 30 hours for three and four year olds and says it is providing “significant financial support, including a business rate holiday for many private providers”. Full guidance on provisions is available here. In addition the Government says it is reducing some of the requirements linked to the Early Years Foundation Stage framework.
It has also updated guidance on free childcare entitlements, enabling councils to be able to move around government funding for them in exceptional circumstances so they can redistribute it for the benefit of critical workers and the parents of the most vulnerable children when their usual arrangements are no longer possible as a result of coronavirus.