Harnessing the power of collaboration

There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 outbreak has been a difficult time for the Early Years (EY) sector – throwing up lots of challenges and hurdles to navigate and overcome.

And with some providers having reopened their doors at the start of June, we wanted to catch up with some of the sector’s experts to look at how this next phase looks for the industry.

Joining us on the panel of our recent webinar – ‘A fresh new chapter for Early Years’ – was June O’Sullivan, the CEO of London Early Years Foundation, Juliette Davies, the founder and director of EY Matters and Sarah Steele, founder and director of the Old Station Nursery Group.

From looking at the transition of reopening and sharing experiences to being positive in a crisis and keeping communications flowing, here are some of the key themes from the session…

Confidence is growing but occupancy is still a worry

One of the main points which arose from the webinar was that confidence levels – both among staff and parents – have been noticeably increasing. June mentioned that as they’re continuing to correspond with parents and keep them regularly up to date, parents are consequently feeling “a little braver” in sending their own children back – with many having moved their return dates from August to July.

Sarah also echoed June’s sentiments and explained how “most people are really confident about moving forward now they’ve got several weeks’ experience under their belt. Those parents who have sent their children back are coming in and seeing happy, joyful healthy children and staff so they are fine.”

While it’s great to hear that parents are gradually feeling more reassured, it was also discussed how occupancy levels and associated funding represent some of the biggest concerns for childcare professionals both at present and over the coming months.

June mentioned that while occupancy levels are still low, to move forward, the Department for Education needs to look at reassessing what social ‘bubbles’ can look like – trusting providers to effectively judge child-staff ratios and manage safety measures. This was a point which Sarah also agreed with, and reiterated that further guidance is needed on this to “allow [childcare providers] to have more flexibility for parents, and to make the experience better for children.”

The importance of sector-wide support

While confidence levels may be increasing, one key catalyst for this seems to be the wave of peer-to-peer support across the industry.

At the start of the pandemic, the overwhelming feeling for most childcare providers was arguably fear – no one knew how long the outbreak would last and when settings’ occupancy levels would start to return to some form of normality. Yet, while we’re still navigating unfamiliar territory, it’s encouraging to hear that many providers’ social distancing measures are successfully keeping staff and children not only safe, but happy too.

Within the webinar, Juliette stated how, “we may not be in the same boat, but we are in the same storms, so let’s continue to connect and share our knowledge and best practice.” And this is one of the most positive things we can see in our industry at the moment – childcare providers across the country are sharing experiences and know-how to create an environment that works to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all those within it.

A crucial point made within one of our earlier webinars was that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to how childcare providers successfully respond to the pandemic and adapt their settings – each one has different requirements and resources. So, the fact that providers are collaborating and helping one another to find their own version of a ‘new normal’ deserves a big pat on the back.

And while the situation is far from over, Juliette’s message of “keep sharing, keep caring and get your parents on board” has never been more relevant.

Being positive in a crisis

While it’s unmistakably a challenging time, the great work the sector has done and continues to do needs to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. And on this thread of thought, June spoke of the EY industry as the ‘fourth emergency service’ – stepping up to help parents and children to feel supported and understood.

We agree that maintaining a ‘glass-half-full’ outlook is what has really made the sector stand out – and the commitment and dedication to child development and parental support is what saw 37% of the sector remain open during the lockdown period.

June also spoke about how the ‘silver lining’ could also be found in ‘owning the COVID pedagogy’:

“We didn’t have any malleable play, and we didn’t have the real vegetables we would normally have in the role play area for example, but – there was time for conversation, [language extension, outdoor exploration and imagination].

“Honestly, the children really responded well to that. There was less pressure on the staff and children to run through all this stuff that they feel they have to do with EYFS lenses, but actually, to show what a great teacher looks like.”

This was an interesting point raised by June that these difficult times really emphasised what a great teacher looks like – showing their ability to adapt and carry on, even in the most unsettled times, to carry out their job to teach children.

Standing up and standing tall for EY

As well as discussing their own approaches and learning so far regarding reopening, we also looked at some of the campaigns which have been launched by LEYF and Nursery World, to help raise the status of the sector to both the public and the Department of Education.

The LEYF’s #StandTall4EY campaign centers around growing sunflowers with children to celebrate the new chapter ahead and Nursery World’s #StandUpForEarlyYears initiative looks at highlighting why the sector should be both better valued and funded.

Yet while these campaigns are separate, the overarching theme and driver behind them is not. Each one conveys how crucial it is that the whole industry comes together as a single voice and promotes the strength and the importance of the sector.

This undercurrent of collaboration was a common theme throughout the entire webinar and will undoubtedly continue to be at the forefront of the industry as the country’s childcare providers head into the next post-lockdown chapter.