I’m Morton Michel’s research analyst. It is my job to ensure we keep up our half-century-old tradition of really knowing and understanding the childcare sector, particularly the political, policy and regulatory developments that impact providers day-to-day.
Needless to say, this year has been a year like no other. Across the country, aspects of our lives that we took for granted were suddenly upended. The Covid-19 pandemic has been called the greatest crisis since the second world war and its impact has been so unlike anything that has gone on before that the very word ‘unprecedented’ has become overused. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on where this leaves the childcare sector as we move forward in a changed world.
No one could have been prepared for the pandemic, but it has thrown into sharp relief the fact there are many aspects of our lives that we take for granted. Who would have thought there would be times when the supermarket shelves were empty, or that many of us would not be able to see our friends and family for months at a time? Other basics too, like access to transport, shops, cafes, all being severely curtailed, meant no-one’s life was the same. Critically of course, childcare was almost completely shut down nationwide, something that even weeks before it happened, seemed implausible. Childcare is a key component of the UK’s economy. Removing it means re-thinking almost everything else.
Yet in some ways it seemed that, from the government’s perspective, announcing drastic action was the easy part. The Prime Minister and Education Secretary gave simultaneous speeches announcing the lockdown and that was that. Implementing the outcomes of that announcement was harder. Never before had understanding the unique complexity of the childcare sector been so important. In the world before the pandemic, ministers could largely get away with not knowing the difference between a nanny and a childminder, a nursery and an out of school club, but now it was key. Crucial announcements using the wrong terminology caused instant confusion and took days to rectify. Doubtless some civil servants were faced with a steep learning curve!
What I take away from this is that, just as we habitually take things like full supermarket shelves for granted, so too do politicians take for granted that they do not need to know the detail of how the industries they manage work. This is completely understandable; I have been researching the childcare sector full time for six years and I know there is always more to learn. A minister, in a post for perhaps a handful of months hasn’t a hope!
As the country tries to re-open though, that in-depth understanding is more important than ever. The economy and the future of the country’s children relies on the childcare sector running at full steam; but it has to happen safely. Changes have to be made to ensure the virus does not continue to spread and, perhaps, should another pandemic happen, its impact is not so shocking. The only option, it seems to me, is for the government and policymakers to truly listen to what the people in the know say. That means talking to the childcare providers themselves and really listening.
The sector undoubtedly needs support. Parents, uncertain about whether to send their children back to settings will need reassurance that they are safe. Sectors that work with other providers, such as out of school clubs based in schools themselves will need help restarting those relationships when so much has changed. Perhaps, most importantly, childcare sector funding has been inadequate for far too long and with the future uncertain, rectifying this becomes a matter of critical importance. On all of these matters, those in charge need to listen to what the sector is saying.
Will this happen? It will not be for any want of trying by the sector. Throughout the crisis the collaboration, willingness to share knowledge and work together, which are the markers of the childcare industry, have been well in evidence. If anything, the sector’s voice is louder than ever. The Covid-19 crisis has caused tremendous unanticipated disruption, and we are far from understanding its full impact on childcare, but there will be a great many challenges ahead for the country that will only be surmounted if the sector truly is listened to.
Daniel Weir, Research Analyst, Morton Michel
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