The digital route to access childcare

By Susan McGhee, Chief Executive

Last week I took part in a webinar session with NMT Magazine’s Editor, Briony Richter, our fun and fast paced conversation took in so many areas of life and business in the early years sector. We talked about the impact of Covid19, the work we have undertaken with Scottish Government to develop a digital tool to manage the changing childcare needs within and on the route out of lockdown restrictions and how our FCSS flexible childcare delivery model really works.

We also touched on the challenges of navigating local administration and management of national policy, reflecting that if you believe in devolution and our rights as citizens to impact what happens in our local communities you must respect and value that local implementation of national guidance.

…and we even managed to sneak in a wee bit on the opportunities that come from a period of challenge and how sometimes you just need to seize your moment of opportunism and raise your hand to be heard.

We talked so much that we only had time to cover three of the audience questions. We could have left it at that but the questions sent in were so relevant and pertinent to the challenges our sector is currently facing that we agreed Briony would send me a copy so I could respond in writing.

So here goes….(Click on any of these questions and you’ll be taken to that specific answer.)

What comparisons do you see between the Covid-19 response in Scotland and England?

Interesting to have a Scottish outlook. We have some differences but it’s good to see that we have collaboration across all nations.

In so many ways the situation is the same yet in so many other ways it’s completely different. Clearly announcements made over the weekend (10th May) mean that providers in England have been given a date for re-opening and are now working towards that date, albeit many with very genuine concerns around the appropriateness of re-opening this soon.

Until last weekend the message from all UK Nations was very similar, the changes over the weekend now mean we are travelling different roads with a much faster return to work plan in place in England and a more cautious and, in my view, safer game plan playing out in Scotland.

There have however been many similarities including concerns over furlough arrangements, funding levels and ultimately sustainability of services as this situation extends and evolves over the weeks and months ahead.

The most important similarity remains our commitment to deliver the very best early years’ experience to the children and families we work with.

Do you have plans to re-open in June or are you waiting to hear more updates from the Government?

As yet services in Scotland, our own included, do not have a re-open date therefore many of our settings remain closed. However, we are operating some of our services as key worker childcare provision and have managed to move some of our work with children who have additional support requirements to be home based so we’re not closed across the board and our experience of operating services during the pandemic has given us some useful insights to inform our route map to re-opening as we do start to move out of restrictions.

We do not expect a “switching off” of lockdown and are basing all our preparations on a very phased return with some occupations going back to work before others. We believe this will result in the extension of the current key worker categories to include other occupations and allow more families to access childcare.

Can Susan describe the parameters of what flexible means? A year ago, we would consider working from home once a week flexible but now that doesn’t seem enough. How will this impact providers in terms of balancing staff and parents with different schedules?

What should flexible working look like now?

Flexible and flexibility are probably now the most used words in my vocabulary, my iPhone certainly thinks so, I only need to type the letter f and that’s what it suggests…although I guess that could be worse!

I truly think our sector has lagged behind much of the working world and that we have a clear need, even before Covid19, to move to a more flexible model. The dictionary definition of flexible says:

  • able to be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances.
  • ready and able to change so as to adapt to different circumstances.

And lists similar words as; adaptable, adjustable, open-ended, changeable, variable, fluid, versatile, accommodating and adaptable.

Words and concepts that are hard to put parameters around but some of the things I think we may see include people working at home part of the week and in the workplace on other days, start and end times could be varied and there’s likely to be a looser definition of business hours.

We already operate a fully flexible service and base our staffing plan on a core team plus sessional workers. This has multiple benefits; it ensures children have connections and relationships with known team members, allows our staff to opt for flexible working and brings people back into our workforce who perhaps can’t commit to a permanent post due to their own caring responsibilities but can do a couple of flexible days a week.

Once you have re-opened what is your own safety and sanitation plan for settings?

What is your plan for when lockdown ends?

We’re currently planning the route map out of restrictions for each of our 20 registered services, we’ll have an overarching statement and then individual tailored plans for each service. This is necessary as each building is different, the services delivered vary and the ages and capabilities of the children vary too.
Some of the things we are considering are:

  • Space requirements and reduced capacities, this may include reducing capacities or where possible increasing available space
  • Additional cleaning and sanitisation plans
  • Extra handwash stations, including at entry points
  • Increased access to outdoors
  • Maintaining home working for our office-based colleagues
  • Staggering start times for children and staff
  • Reducing the numbers of people entering our buildings by meeting children and parents at the entrance
  • PPE for our team members where appropriate

As anyone working with young children knows asking them to social distance is far from ideal but we can look at room layouts, resources used and adult interactions to best protect both the children and our teams. So that’s what we’ll do always bearing in mind getting the balance right between the emotional needs of the children and the protection that some distance offers, of course we’ll hug our babies and very young children, we’ll offer comfort to an upset child where needed but we’ll reduce unnecessary contact wherever possible.

Do you think the Scottish and UK Governments are doing enough? There has been a lot of unclear messages.

This one is certainly a hot topic, the announcements made over the weekend have caused some confusion and of course I live in Scotland so I’m following the guidance of our Scottish Government and I do believe we have had fairly clear and consistent guidance from our First Minister and MSPs.

As to whether governments are doing enough, I guess that’s one of those only-time-will-tell questions. This is a totally unprecedented situation and I do think our Government is doing the best job it can, it’s making decisions based on scientific guidance and treating us as adults by sharing statistics and plans with us.

What the long-term impact is going to be is a scary thought with loss of businesses and jobs; a massive bill to be paid, inevitably in part through tax revenues; an almost certain economic recession; lives disrupted and more children and families facing life in poverty. Then there’s the emotional impact of the lost time with loved ones; the tragic loss of over 40,000 people (ONS figures Tuesday 12/05/20) and for our children and young people the missed milestones, those transitions between nursery and primary, primary to secondary, exam results and so much more.

These three questions were fairly similar so rather than repeat myself I’ve combined the response.

How long do you think it will take to reach pre-Covid-19 occupancy levels?

Do you have any concerns over the sustainability of the early years sector as a whole?

Do you think the sector can cope with a lockdown throughout the summer?

I certainly think this is a long-haul situation, when restrictions do begin to lift, we are likely to be operating on reduced capacities, schools are already planning on halving class sizes, workers will be on phased return and staggered days in the workplace. Parents will be nervous about their children returning to nursery and school and many people’s personal circumstances will have changed.

If we are ever to return to a pre Covid19 occupancy level, we are probably going to have to look at our delivery models and make the changes needed to reflect the changing demand.

Until we have a safe, effective vaccine we are at the mercy of this virus and protecting lives has to be a priority so I’m certainly not forecasting any significant growth in occupancy levels this year, I’ll be happy to be operating safely and sustainably a year from now, hopeful the vaccine will be on the horizon and in a few years’ time we’ll be looking back saying “remember in 2020 when…”

Long term I think our sector plays a critical part in the life of our country and it’s people, but I do think we need to adapt and remodel our services, build resilience into all of our planning and stick together to give us the strongest voice possible in guiding and influencing the future of early years and the broader childcare sector.

As for lockdown lasting through the summer and our sector still being here in the autumn, of course we will be, sadly we may lose some of our services and those that do come out of the other side of this situation will look and feel a bit different but I as I said in the previous paragraph I do think the need for our services will still be there. We’re a creative and agile sector and together we are more than able to adapt what we do to meet the evolving demand.

When planning for services over the summer we should remember the informal childcare families often use in school holidays may not be available. In Scotland over 50% of families use informal care in school holidays, that’s Gran and Grandad and other relatives and friends, under current restrictions those people won’t be able to look after the children. School teachers and other staff will be on holiday so the keyworker childcare that has been provided in schools may not be available either, perhaps that’s a need we can safely and effectively fill? We need to be creative in our thinking and adapt our services as this situation evolves.

Great toolkit, simple but essential. Thanks for an informative webinar!

I know it’s not really a question, but I can’t resist the opportunity to say thanks, it is simple, but it works. Click the links to find out more about our new tool, Flexibility Pathway Connect, developed to help childcare providers and keyworkers in Scotland during the Covid19 situation and about our full Flexibility Pathway Toolkit, a full management tool to support flexible delivery.

How long do you expect to keep some staff on furlough?

Hopefully as short a time as possible, we have a team of around 140 people nationally and have managed to keep furlough numbers down to less than 20 people. We have a couple of people coming off furlough at the end of May and will keep the position under regular review for everyone else.

We have managed to claim the job retention grant to cover 80% of our furloughed colleagues’ salaries and topped payments up from our own revenues to ensure our team still receive 100% of their salary.

We know that some of our team may be on furlough for a considerable period of time and are trying to be very clear and transparent with them about how and when we will make the decision to end their furlough period. We’ve been keeping in touch with all our colleagues on a local and national level and can’t wait to have everybody back and doing what they do best.

I have a small setting, but part of my core values is flexibility. Might be different for bigger operators but for me implementing flexible availability has worked.

It’s so good to hear that flexible delivery has worked for you. We really believe all operators can increase the flexibility of their offering, perhaps by starting with just a few places moving to a flexible model to trial it and see where it takes them.

Will the Government finally put more funding into the early years sector?

When lockdown ends, we should improve flexibility for childcare services, but I fear that it will just stay the same and that includes a continuation of lack of funding.

Funding is always a challenge and I understand how frustrating this can be. Although I recognise that this varies across the country wherever services are under-funded it is wrong and the lack of value that is sometimes placed on our sector is disheartening. Let’s hope that the vital and valuable nature of our services during this pandemic has shown just how important we are and increases the value, respect and funding rates we receive.

Do you think it should be the Government who provides settings with PPE if they are asking them to re-open when there is still a risk?

We’ve received some PPE from our local authorities, some from generous donors and some we have bought ourselves. It’s a difficult one as of course we understand that medical staff had to be prioritised but there are situations where our team members really need this equipment too. My experience has been that availability in the supply chain is improving.

I hope these responses have been of interest to you and am more than happy to answer any additional questions anyone may have about our services, thoughts on the sector, how we are managing our Covid19 response or pretty much anything early years and childcare related…after all who wouldn’t want to talk about the best sector ever.

Wishing everyone good luck in navigating these stormy waters and hoping to see you all safely on the other side.

Best wishes,