It’s difficult to explain the Covid-19 pandemic to children aged five and under. Sharon*, who has worked as an early years practitioner for a decade in the greater Manchester area, says her attempts have included a lot of “drawing green blobs”.
Sharon is one of the hundreds of thousands of early years practitioners being made to go into work during the UK’s third national lockdown. On 4 January, Boris Johnson announced that early years settings would remain open as normal, despite schools being closed for the month, following pressure from teachers’ unions. The decision has angered childcare workers, who argue that this is just the latest example of the government’s continued neglect of the sector.
Alice* has worked as an early years practitioner for almost five years in the south-west of England. She recently sent her boss a letter explaining she will no longer be coming into her workplace, which she believes is unsafe, due to rights laid out in section 44 of the Employment Act 1996.
“I really love working in early years,” says Alice. “But we’re not respected by the government, we’re not protected. Apparently, we’re doing this really important job, but they’re not paying us as if we’re important, and they’re not putting measures in place to protect us or the children.”
This lack of support prompted Alice to join the United Voices of the World (UVW), a worker-led union that recently launched a childcare workers’ branch. UVW – along with other unionised and non-unionised workers – is calling on the government to close early years settings for all but the children of key workers and vulnerable children during the current lockdown.
‘A slap in the face’.
It’s not just the government that early years workers feel let down by. Some workers argue the National Education Union (NEU) has also failed to protect and support them throughout the pandemic – and in this lockdown specifically.
“I ended up cancelling my membership [to the NEU] on the day this lockdown was announced,” says Grace*, who has worked in a nursery in the south-east since 2017. “I think there are people in the NEU who genuinely do care about early years workers, but a lot don’t.” She explains that the fact the union has been “talking about how it managed to get schools to close” while early years settings are being forced to stay open “felt like a slap in the face”.
The government has insisted that the reason early years settings are staying open is because transmission rates are low among young children. These settings, however, have high staff-to-child ratios and welcome many parents every day. Grace describes the justification as “insulting” to practitioners’ intelligence.
One early years worker, who commutes on crowded tube trains and lives with parents in their 80s, wrote to Novara Media anonymously describing nurseries as “a hotbed of infection and transmission”.
Grace agrees. “Every time you hug a child, there will be spit on you. It’s just the nature of the job.” One of her colleagues has been off sick for weeks having caught Covid-19 from a child. “It’s scary. You just never know, do you?”
Despite working in high-risk environments, early years workers don’t have priority access to the vaccine, and testing is extremely limited. Social distancing is impossible with small children, as is mask-wearing for the most part because it impedes communication. “I would probably feel safer if I was wearing a mask,” says Grace, “but I don’t think that would really make me safe”.
Recently, Alice arrived at work to find the building hadn’t been deep-cleaned, despite someone testing positive for the virus. “Me and my colleagues were all really shocked and upset that [management] hadn’t thought about us […]. We spent the whole day cleaning the room and were unable to do any teaching.” She recalls how the staff were “panicking and crying, scared for our health and for the children”.
Meanwhile, Sharon fears the “personal, social and emotional side” of early years learning is suffering as a result of settings staying open. Under the current conditions, children are scared to touch and share things, explains Sharon; as a result, it feels like they “spend most of their day washing their hands”.
Nurseries on the brink.
Early years workers are well-aware that marketisation is largely to blame for their workplaces remaining open, while schools have closed. Alice was initially “really shocked” upon learning that early years settings wouldn’t be closing. But after doing some research she realised that “this was a political, economic decision, not one based on scientific evidence”.
84% of nurseries in the UK are private. Public funding has collapsed over the past ten years, and those nurseries that do get local authority funding are dependent on children’s attendance in order to access it. The whole early years sector is at risk of collapse due to the financial impact of the pandemic. In June 2020, the Early Years Alliance found 69% of nurseries, pre-schools and childminders were expected to run at a loss until December, while a quarter said it was likely they would be forced to close.
Sharon’s nursery is one such setting on the brink of closure due to the economic turmoil wrought by the pandemic. As a result, staff have been asked to telephone nervous parents and persuade them to bring their children in during the lockdown – even suggesting they may lose their places if they don’t. For Sharon, this is not only immoral, but a confusing message to send to parents. “We’re pushing [them] to bring children into settings when they’re trying to follow the government guidelines to stay at home.”
Of course, some parents are sending their children into nursery during the lockdown because they have to go to work. “If we were shut then a lot of people would need to be furloughed, and I think they absolutely should be,” says Grace. “There are far too many people that are still getting up and going to work every single day when it’s not an essential job.”
Working through lockdown has taken an immense toll on workers across the sector. “We’ve all cried in the last two weeks,” says Grace. “The first week of this lockdown was probably the most depressing I’ve ever had, because I just felt like no one was listening.”
But with workers at breaking point, the crisis has ignited an ire for change amongst them – and now they are getting organised. Whilst the early years sector has historically been largely un-unionised, more childcare workers are now joining unions. The NEU and Unison have launched a campaign to ensure early years settings are “safe and funded”, and only open for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. In UVW, childcare workers are calling for the same level of closure, while more and more workers are readying themselves to hand in Section 44 letters.
Alice contacted UVW after the incident when her workplace wasn’t properly disinfected. Since joining the union, she says she has “felt so supported,” not only because “they’re helping us fight to be safe,” but because the branch members going through similar experiences have “provided emotional support as well”.
Early years practitioners who spoke to Novara Media say that coming together to call for the closure of their workplaces has allowed them to finally start feeling that they have a voice, after years of feeling forgotten. And their demands go beyond the pandemic: they want their vital work to be appropriately funded, respected and remunerated.
“We know our work is important,” says Grace. “Imagine if we didn’t have any kind of early years [settings] or childcare in the UK? Everything would crumble”.
*Identifying details have been changed to protect anonymity.
Sophie K Rosa is a freelance journalist.