Coronavirus: Wales' pre-school childcare faces 'uncertain future'

By Peter Shuttleworth
BBC Wales News

  • Published
Katie CoxImage source, Katie Cox
Image caption,
The Cox family are weighing up whether Jacob and Bethany go back to school and nursery

Many parents will share Katie Cox's dilemma of whether she sends her young children back to school and nursery when they reopen in Wales.

Pre-school childcare and schools can reopen on 29 June but the mum-of-four is "concerned" about how safe her three-year-old will be back in nursery.

But the "futures of pre-school settings may be in doubt" when Welsh Government stops a funding "lifeline" this week.

The government said free pre-school care was available for key workers.

The approximate 500 pre-school providers across Wales have continued to receive government funding for those children who are applicable for free childcare despite nurseries being shut since March due to the coronavirus lockdown.

'Hammer blow'

That funding ends on 19 June unless the applicable child actually attends their chosen nursery from 22 June - a move described as a "hammer blow" by opposition parties - making them "unsustainable" according to the group representing nurseries.

The Welsh Government has also suspended its free childcare provision for children who have turned three since the new year until at least September - this will be reviewed in August.

An organisation that represents nurseries said pre-school settings were worried if the childcare funding is not reintroduced for new applicants in September, or parents continue to keep their children at home next term, their "future looks uncertain".

Image source, Kelly Hornbuckle
Image caption,
Playgroups such as Little Acorns "rely" on what it called the government's funding "lifeline"

It is the widely-acknowledged inability for pre-school children to socially distance that worries Katie when she considers sending three-year-old Bethany back to nursery when it reopens.

Should I keep my children at home?

The 35-year-old thinks she may "err on the side of caution" and keep her youngest at home due to the "possible fear" of "inadvertently introducing coronavirus" into her family.

"For three months I've been telling Bethany we can't go to the park or see her friends or sleep at nanny's house because of a nasty virus that might hurt us," said Katie.

"So if I now tell her she can go back to nursery and Bethany asks 'has the virus gone mummy?' - what do I say? 'Well, no Bethany actually it hasn't gone so you need to be careful, keep washing your hands and keep away from your friends and the nursery workers.

"Firstly that could potentially frighten her a little bit and put her off nursery completely and more importantly how do you expect a three-year-old to effectively socially distance.

"And a young child's natural instinct has no boundaries - they want to play with any toy they see and get close to their friends all while constantly putting their hands on their face."

Image source, Katie Cox
Image caption,
Katie Cox is worried that Jacob and Bethany won't be able to safely socially distance

Katie and husband Thomas have been "agonising" over whether to send Bethany back to nursery and five-year-son Jacob back to school in Chepstow since the announcement was made they could reopen on 29 June.

"We can only make an informed decision when I know the plans of nursery and what the Covid-19 R number is like locally," added the legal assistant and trainee lawyer.

"But our instinct is to err on the side of caution and keep the young children home. We can do that because we're mainly working from home so we're lucky in that respect as I know many don't have that option."

Media caption,

Can children catch and spread coronavirus?

What will happen when funding 'lifeline' is cut?

Thirteen of Little Acorns' 22 children benefit from Wales' free childcare offer and that funding has been a "lifeline" for the playgroup in Chepstow.

Coordinator Kelly Hornbuckle has vowed the morning playgroup will reopen "even if just one child wants to return", but she has conceded the long-term future is uncertain if they don't receive any government help.

"We fully understand parents' concerns about sending their children back to playgroup and we're trying to give as many answers as we can," said the mother-of-two.

"But this is an unprecedented situation and we're awaiting further guidance ourselves on how to safely reopen our nursery.

"I'd completely understand if parents didn't feel comfortable about sending their child to playgroup, they've got to do what is right for them.

"For us as childcare providers, our funding may be cut if some of those children who are in receipt of the free childcare provision don't attend.

"Over the summer we'll lose all 13 of our children who get the government's childcare funding when they move up to school - so what happens to the pre-school sector if there's a second coronavirus wave which affects us reopening in September for the winter term?"

Latest figures show about 17,500 people work in the childcare sector in Wales and the four staff at Little Acorns, which runs every morning at a community centre in Chepstow's Bulwark area, have offered to take pay cuts while their landlords have deferred rent.

"We'll be here for our children as long as we can but we just don't know how viable our business will be long-term with this uncertain future," added Kelly, who took over the playgroup 18 months ago.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Pre-school providers face "months of reduced demand and increased operating costs"

The group representing the almost 21,000 nurseries across the UK is concerned the "complexities of funding" could leave some childcare businesses "operating at a loss while delivering this important service".

"Nurseries and other providers are gearing up towards wider reopening from 29 June, but this announcement means some may lose funding over a week before that date," said Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association Cymru.

"Providers are between a rock and a hard place where they might not be able to reopen, but also lose out on support to remain sustainable.

"Childcare businesses will be looking at months of reduced demand for places and increased operating costs as they bring in measures to keep children and staff safe."

The association called for a "transformation and recovery fund" for the sector to help pre-school providers "weather this storm".

Media caption,

How will the reopening of Welsh schools work?

The Welsh Conservatives have called for the Labour-led administration to "save" the early years industry.

"The Welsh Government needs to realise that if nurseries start going to the wall, there will not be sufficient childcare capacity when children are back in school and parents return to work," said the party's children spokeswoman Janet Finch-Saunders.

"Childcare professionals have told me that they now face huge instability and are making skilled staff redundant."

Plaid Cymru said it was "very concerned" as there "simply isn't enough support for this sector".

"The crisis has exposed how fragmented the sector is," said education spokeswoman Sian Gwenllian.

"The current support given by Welsh Government simply isn't enough and we could easily find ourselves in a situation whereby many childcare settings simply won't be able to reopen after the crisis has passed."

"This will be hugely detrimental in economic terms as many families will be left without this essential provision and many parents - especially women - will simply be unable to return to work."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
There are about 500 pre-school providers in Wales, latest figures show

Government funding key worker support scheme

The Welsh Government will make its final decision on Thursday about schools reopening on 29 June.

It said the funding has been reprioritised for paying for children of critical workers and vulnerable pupils under the new Coronavirus Childcare Assistance Scheme.

"We are currently providing free childcare for pre-school aged children of key workers, as well as for vulnerable children, and will continue to do that until the end of the summer break," said a spokesman.

"There are a number of schemes in place which can provide support to the childcare sector, including grants for small businesses.

"We have also published new guidance to support childcare settings to increase their operations alongside schools."

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