For too long, the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) early years sector has been the poor relation when it comes to funding and political and media attention – with hard working and dedicated staff starved of resources and taken for granted.
The pandemic has only served to reinforce this shameful situation. While the attention of the media and politicians has been on ‘reopening’ schools, PVI nurseries have remained open to all children.
Early childhood staff are essential workers on the frontline of the pandemic. Yet, when it came to testing staff for coronavirus, PVI nursery staff had to make their own arrangements. Although eventually prioritised for access to community coronavirus testing facilities, this proved difficult where facilities were not ‘local’ or open at convenient times, preventing staff, particularly in smaller settings, from accessing testing.
While we welcomed the news that all staff at PVI nurseries in England would have access to tests to use twice weekly at home from 22 March, this surely could have been achieved sooner. Voice Community campaigned for better arrangements for early years staff, including writing to Children’s Ministers in the home nations. We were pleased that ministers in England listened and acted in relation to testing.
However, testing is only one part of the campaign to protect our early years professionals. Vaccination is key, too.
There has been some confusion over vaccination for early years workers in England. At the time of writing, eligible frontline health and social care staff are the only occupations being vaccinated. In some areas, early years staff are being vaccinated because they also provide personal care, but this is not universal.
However, confusion arose because nursery staff and childminders are included in the National Careers Service’s list of ‘social care’ occupations. So, the confirmation from the Department for Education (DfE) that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) prioritisation, and not the National Careers Service’s list of social care occupations, took precedence was a further blow to thousands of early childhood workers.
There have been mixed messages on vaccination coming out of government. Ministers in all the home nations had indicated their support to prioritise education staff and other key workers and raised their expectations – only for them to be left deeply disappointed by the JCVI’s decision not to prioritise key workers.
Voice Community remains deeply concerned that early years staff have not been identified as a priority to receive the coronavirus vaccination. Our members are not alone when they tell us that they feel as though the early years sector is less important and less valued by ministers than education for those aged five and over – when, in fact, the sector is critical to economic recovery and addressing the attainment gap.
According to our member survey, there were two things that government and employers could do to support the education and early years workforce to feel safe at work: mass testing of staff and pupils and prioritising staff for the vaccine.
Two out of every three early years respondents told us that all staff being vaccinated would make them feel safer, in addition to testing.
Government ministers promote the evidence that children do not tend to suffer severe symptoms of coronavirus themselves, but it is clear there has been little consideration of the consequences for staff.
Early years and school staff cannot practise social distancing at work and have to come into close or actual contact with children or other adults, and therefore are at more risk than those in occupations that can work from home, regardless of age.
Settings have also suffered severe staff shortages because of infections and the need to self-isolate when cases in a bubble are identified.
Voice Community believes that to protect these groups, the PVI workforce must be brought forward for the vaccine as part of phase 2 of vaccinations, once the most vulnerable have been vaccinated, ahead of their wider age groups. Although our letters and calls to ministers for early years staff to be vaccinated have so far not brought the result we wanted, we will continue to campaign on behalf of the workforce.
If we want to get transmission rates down, and nurseries, schools and our communities to return to some form of normality as soon as possible, those working on the frontline must be vaccinated.