Covid childcare challenges

In the second of our series on childcare in the Covid era, we talk to Sarah Presswood, nursery manager at George Perkins Day Nursery in Birmingham.

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Sarah Presswood is nursery manager at George Perkins Day Nursery in Birmingham. George Perkins is a standalone nursery and has managed to survive the last year and come out in better shape than expected, but Sarah admits it has been very difficult.

One big problem recently has been the government guidance preventing nurseries from charging fees if their children have to stay away because they are isolating for Covid reasons. “It’s hard when we still have staff to pay,” she says, adding that she can understand not charging when the nursery was not open to most children. However, she reasons, the government guidance contradicts the nursery’s usual sickness policy, that is, that parents pay when their child cannot attend.

Instead, she is having to negotiate a voluntary fee with parents on a case by case basis. “We treat it on a case by case basis because parents are in very different circumstances, but when the government comes out with blanket guidance it makes things harder,” she says, adding that it doesn’t feel as if there has been any consultation with people working on the frontline.

Sarah says she is proud of what the nursery has achieved this year. “There is a huge sense of relief and achievement and pride in my team,” she says. “We have been able to provide great care for the children.”

The nursery has survived during the Covid lockdowns in part because it has worked with the local authority to take key workers’ children from other nurseries that have had to close. The nursery has not taken out any loans and has instead used some of its reserves.

Staffing

Fortunately, the nursery only had to close one bubble for five days, but employees with suspected symptoms have had to isolate until their test results have come through. Having some bank staff – and Sarah acting as cover when necessary – has meant they haven’t had to use agency staff, meaning they have reduced the risk of infection and maintained continuity of care for the children, many of whom have found it hard to fit back into a nursery routine after weeks at home.

Sarah is hoping that the guidance will soon be relaxed so they can dispense with the bubbles which have made staffing more challenging.

Staffing has been a big issue. “It’s the toughest I’ve known it for a long time,” says Sarah, who is this week dealing with two employee who have suffered recent bereavements, one employee who has a relative in hospital and another who is isolating after showing Covid symptoms. Sarah says higher pay and more recognition would help bring more people into the sector. “Recruitment is an utter nightmare,” she says, adding that she thinks nurseries will have to bring in younger, cheaper staff or unqualified people to plug the gaps, with a potential knock-on impact on quality of care, turn children away or increase fees.

Underfunding

Underfunding of ‘free’ childcare is also an ongoing issue, says Sarah. The nursery restricts the number of funded places it has for three and four year olds due to the fact that each place funded by the Government is one pound an hour too little to cover the actual cost, meaning she would lose money, says Sarah. She admits that this means that to some extent the fees from younger children are used to cross subsidise the places for older children, although she says younger children always cost more due to the staff ratios required. The nursery also operates a voluntary charge for additional activities and for meals and snacks.

Sarah says the result is rising divisions in quality between nurseries in poorer and richer areas. “The division of quality is already happening,” she says.



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