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An Invisible and Vulnerable Sector: Early Years Childcare and Covid

Vulnerabilities faced by the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector, particularly exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Vulnerability of provision without government support

 The early years sector has long reported concerns about its financial viability (NDNA 2020, EYA 2020). Prior to Covid-19 providers of early education and care were already grossly under resourced. The government has consistently underfunded the entitlement to ‘free hours’ for 2, 3 and 4 year olds with an increasing gap between the hourly rate paid to early years settings and the cost of providing education and care (CEEDA 2019). This underfunding has resulted in early years settings (many of them small and medium sized enterprises) experiencing financial precarity for years and, as a result, the sector’s workforce bears the consequences of this through low pay (Low Pay Commission 2020).

During the pandemic early childhood education and care (ECEC) has been both an essential public good and invisible. We know it is essential because working parents’ lives were thrown into disarray during the first lockdown when nurseries and childminders closed their doors to all but keyworker and vulnerable children. Parents – and mothers predominantly – were left with the exhausting juggling act of reconciling paid work, home schooling, care and increased household labour. The lack of childcare for mothers has been a root cause of women’s job losses, reduction of pay and hours, and employment contract breaches. In addition, children missed out on important input from ECEC for development and socialisation and employers had to decide how to respond to mass disruption to their workforces caused by a lack of childcare.

Yet, at the same time, the ECEC sector was invisible in the government’s Covid19 policy. During the first lockdown from March to May 2020, nurseries, childminders and nannies were expected to continue to provide care. Nannies were not mentioned in official covid policy or given conflicting advice, and yet many have continued to work throughout the pandemic. Nurseries and childminders were essential providers of care to the children of key workers, yet the financial support they needed to continue operating, despite losing parent fees, was inadequate or not forthcoming. Sector leaders described early years as ‘the forgotten sector’.

All ECEC settings experienced decreased numbers of children attending in December 2020 compared to before the pandemic. Around 50% or more of all nursery settings reported a decline in numbers and 41% of all settings in our survey reported going into deficit between June and December 2020. Despite a year of financial loss, our survey data revealed that most nursery settings (90%) are very or somewhat confident they will remain open. But this comes at a cost as many are considering implementing strategies that could have significant repercussions for the quality of care and the working conditions in the sector. For example, our survey data tells us that 28% of maintained nurseries may need to reduce the number of staff employed, 24% of private nurseries may employ more lower-skilled or less-experienced workers, and many settings plan to increase numbers of children per member of staff (ranging from 17% of independent nurseries to 30% of voluntary or community playgroups). Our survey of childminders also reported decreased attendance. Over 60% of childminders experienced a decrease in the number of children that they cared for and 22% are not at all confident that they will be working in the sector in 6 months. The sector has been treated like an essential public service but not funded like one.

Without adequate government support and investment, both the maintained and private sector remain vulnerable. This has the greatest effect on women, including working mothers, as well as working-class children and the women who make up the vast majority of the ECEC workforce.

“I know that in terms of wider society, if all the nurseries had to shut, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would be the end of careers for most mothers. And it would be a complete change in the dynamic of education and care.” (Nursery Manager, single site Private Nursery, Bristol)

 Unsustainable for settings and unaffordable for parents

Whilst settings continue to grapple with issues of financial sustainability as the pandemic continues, access to much provision continues to be expensive and inaccessible for some families. Fees outside the funded hours increase annually. According to Coram Childcare (2020), the average price of 50 hours of care a week for a child under two in nursery is £252.07 across Great Britain, or £13,100 a year.

There are substantial variations between regions between the English regions, with the price for nursery places (for under twos) 61 per cent higher in inner London (£340.57) compared to the North East (£211.15). This lack of affordability is the main reason one in five parents have not accessed formal childcare and leaves many working parents (mothers), those on low paid and minoritized women and families with little support.

‘If you have free or more affordable childcare, it gives people the freedom to make different choices. And if people on lower incomes as well, it would enable them to make different choices about what they want to do, and maybe training. Or getting certain jobs…’ (Parent, London)

‘I think a lot of women would be more inclined to return to work if the money that they were earning was theirs as opposed to just going straight on childcare.’ (Nursery Manager, single site nursery, Wales)

This tension between affordability of provision for parents and improved financial viability for settings is an ongoing challenge, and all the more urgent as the sector emerges from the pandemic.

Risks to provision in low income communities

ECEC plays an important role in narrowing attainment gaps between ‘disadvantaged’ children and their more advantaged peers. This means disruption to early years provision has a disproportionate impact on lower-income families and children. We found that children in areas of greater deprivation were less likely to attend ECEC during the pandemic, which reflects pre pandemic research that children from the most disadvantaged families were least likely to access their funded hours (Campbell et al 2019). Maintained (local authority) nurseries, which tend to be situated in more deprived areas of England and Wales were the most likely to report that they went into deficit (54%), and childminders in more deprived areas were less certain about their ability to continue offering provision than those in the least deprived areas.

A female workforce unprotected

92.6% of the ECEC workforce are women. These workers have suffered from inadequate health and safety provision and from financial insecurity. Unlike the statutory school aged sector, ECEC settings received no funding for PPE or for additional cleaning. In many instances, the early years workforce was side-lined in discussions about health and safety at work, leading to high levels of stress and anxiety as workers attempted to piece together guidance that was often impractical and frequently changing:

‘I mean the mental health for staff has been affected like I have never, ever known before in my life. Most of my job at the moment is dealing with the mental health of our team. You know, people begging to be furloughed, people frightened.’ (Manager, Charity pre-school, West Yorkshire)

‘So, my anxiety levels went sky-high, and I did struggle, so from that point of view I knew it wasn’t healthy to watch it almost every time the news was on, and then the five ‘o’clock briefings, but I had to.’ (Manager, Children’s Centre, West Yorkshire)

Many workers felt compelled to continue working in unsafe conditions, often out of for fear of being fired or losing pay:

‘I don’t think any of us feel safe as childminders. Because we are working in our own homes. I think when I first reopened, I was quite terrified.’ (Childminder, South West)

‘I feel like there are quite a few people who don’t feel safe, but they’re also scared of rocking the boat. They don’t wanna take a stand because they don’t want to get fired.’ (Childcare practitioner, South West)

‘During the first lockdown we were told not to blend households but to go to work if unable to work from home. Many employers used this loophole to force nannies to work as a means of convenience- NOT necessity.’ (Nanny, London)

75% of childminders in England accessed the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS) and 75% of those workers found it was not sufficient to cover their usual income. Many childminders who did not use the scheme (55%) were ineligible. Similarly, 85% of childminders in Wales used Childcare Providers Grant and many who did not use the scheme (50%) were ineligible. Nursery workers and nannies we interviewed – many who receive only National Minimum Wage – struggled to cover basic costs when furloughed at 80% pay. These findings are unsurprising given that low wages are endemic in the ECEC sector and the majority of its female workforce are, at the best of times, barely making ends meet.


The ECEC sector is socially and economically necessary and its female workforce are doing vital and valuable work. But this is not how the sector is viewed by the government, which helps to explain its ongoing invisibility and marginalisation in official Covid policy. There is considerable uncertainty across all ECEC settings, which have been operating under huge amounts of pressure as they have continued to provide pivotal support for families and their children throughout the pandemic. Women ECEC workers and working class mothers and their children are bearing the brunt of the government’s gender insensitive pandemic response.

This blog post is based on the UKRI/ESRC-funded project Childcare during Covid. More details can be found here

This blog has been written by:
Dr Katie Cruz (Senior Lecturer in Law, Centre for Law at Work, University of Bristol); Dr Xanthe Whittaker (Research Fellow, Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC), University of Leeds) and Dr Nathan Archer (Research Fellow, Centre for Employment Relations Innovation and Change (CERIC), University of Leeds)

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