Two unions representing workers in early years, including the vast majority of support staff, are today (Tuesday) calling on Government to protect and properly fund the sector.
The National Education Union and UNISON have highlighted a series of funding and safety issues ministers must address to ensure community safety around the care and education of young children.
Nursery schools, and nurseries are currently required to remain open to all children, even though the public is being told that reducing contacts is essential to bring viral levels down.
The Government’s insistence nurseries stay open – with parents, staff and young children mingling all day and potentially taking coronavirus home to their families – is clearly incompatible with efforts to make the lockdown work, say the unions.
Scientific experts on the SAGE committee advising the Government consider education settings to be unsafe for communities if they are left fully open, the NEU and UNISON point out.
Among the key issues is funding, the unions say. For early education settings more widely, making them Covid-safe has been a drain on already-stretched resources.
This is the result of historic real-terms cuts to funding under successive Conservative-led Governments, with maintained nursery schools (MNS) particularly badly hit.
In recent years many maintained nursery schools have closed due to chronic underfunding and all that remain are receiving less money now than in 2015, the unions say. The Government’s most recent funding announcement for schools to help tackle Covid excluded early years settings, whose future now hangs in the balance.
The National Education Union and UNISON are making the following calls on behalf of early years establishments:
- All nurseries and early years settings reduce numbers attending, in the same way and on the same timescales as primary schools.
- Immediate provision of emergency funding to the sector to cover additional costs incurred due to Covid-19.
- A long-term funding formula for maintained nurseries and the early years sector as soon as possible to maintain funding and cover additional costs.
- Funding allocations be maintained for nurseries on 2019/20 pupil numbers until after the pandemic is over.
- Parents, who need to, are furloughed so that they can care for their children at home.
A petition launched last night reflecting these demands already has 6,000 signatures. In addition, more than 2,500 letters have been sent to MPs.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said:
“The decision to keep early years open throughout lockdown makes no sense when scientists tell us we need to reduce the total number of social contacts. It reinforces the very strong feeling amongst our members that their sector is always an afterthought to this Government. Clearly, they should be treated the same as primary schools – and that change must be made urgently, for the good of the country as a whole. Working parents should then receive furlough so they can stay at home for their child.
“The early years sector was already under incredible strain before Covid. It is a very challenging environment in which to maintain Covid security, and recognition of that by Rishi Sunak before Budget day would go some way to restore certainty across the sector.”
Jon Richards, head of education of UNISON, said:
“For safety’s sake, the Government has to take action. Last month there were around 700 Covid outbreaks a week reported in early years premises and the true figure was probably far higher.
“Recent changes in funding mean that, as things stand, nurseries lose funding if any child is unable to attend because their families are worried or they need to stay away because they’re isolating.
“Some nurseries are begging parents to send their children because they can’t afford the financial blow. That completely defeats the purpose of lockdown.
“The risks to staff, families and communities are exactly the same as for primary schools which have already closed. Nurseries must be treated the same way.”