Ruthba goes to work every day in a sector that’s “filled with fear” and where “stress levels are through the roof”.
Most people are advised to work from home if possible during the coronavirus lockdown.
But Ruthba is an early years worker—and like hundreds of thousands across England, she’s expected to work as normal.
“It has been frustrating and very stressful,” Ruthba told Socialist Worker. “Leading Sage scientists have said there is no scientific rationale for keeping early years settings open while schools are closed.
“The government has done nothing to support us.”
Adele, an early years special needs teacher, is also going to work—despite huge risks.
“Almost all of us have had Covid,” Adele told Socialist Worker. “It’s been chaos as people have had to isolate, and there have been times when we’ve had to close.
“It messes with your head knowing you aren’t safe. I listen to the radio saying we all have to stay at home while I’m on my way into work.”
Since 5 January schools and colleges across England have been open only to vulnerable children and those with key worker parents. But early years settings such as nurseries and pre-schools remain open to all.
Elizabeth, a parent in Newcastle-under-Lyme, was “shocked and horrified” at the news.
“Children and staff could take the virus home,” she told a NEU union online meeting earlier this month. “I’m disgusted that the government cares so little for the safety of our children.”
Nursery school head teacher Sally Leese from Birmingham said Boris Johnson’s lockdown announcement “felt like a punch to the gut”.
“Our prime minister dismissed an entire workforce, making them feel they are worthless,” she said.
Adele agreed. “It’s like we have to be in work as our lives are not as important,” she said.
The Tories say early years settings are safe. They lie.
Reports of coronavirus cases from early years settings to schools inspectorate Ofsted nearly doubled in just one week last month.
There were 1,267 reports in the week starting 4 January–and 2,357 the following week.
Each report means at least one positive coronavirus case—and could mean several cases.
Public Health England recorded 43 Covid-19 outbreaks in nurseries between 25 and 31 January.
The figure for the previous week was 37.
“We work in a sector where it is virtually impossible to socially distance with such young children,” explained Ruthba. “How can you make this sector Covid safe?”
She said workers need testing and that the government “need to close us with the exception of children of key workers and vulnerable children”.
“I wish we all staged a one-day strike,” she said. “That would teach them a lesson.”
Privatisation and underfunding have pushed the early years sector into crisis
“The government has put a gun to the head of the sector and is letting Covid pull the trigger.”
That’s how Ruthba describes the situation facing early years.
Funding is based on children’s attendance. But fewer parents are choosing to send children to nursery settings due to the pandemic, while others are partly closed as the virus spreads.
Swathes could shut for good. Ruthba said the problems are rooted in a push for privatisation.
“Twenty years ago, most early years settings were provided by local councils or community nurseries,” she said.
“Today the private sector accounts for 84 percent of childcare providers in Britain.”
More parents are priced out of using settings as “nursery fees have gone up four times faster than wages”.
“There are a growing number of mega chains,” said Ruthba. “Most are now vulnerable and some will go out of business.”
Adele said, “When I first started, you got more money in deprived areas.
“Now the government funding is per child and it doesn’t cover the cost of a place. The sector is on a knife edge. If a nursery loses a child because they move away, there can be job losses instantly.”
The Institute for Fiscal Studies said government pledges to fund some extra places won’t stop closures.
It questioned why this extra funding is capped.
“The providers and local authorities who will be hurt the most will be those where take-up quickly recovers,” it said.
“Funding will be tightest exactly where there is most demand.”
The crisis shows an urgent need for change.
Adele said a big problem is that workers are treated as if they only provide childcare.
“Funding has got to stop being linked to the government agenda of forcing parents back to work,” she said. “And all nurseries should be brought back into the public sector.”
Ruthba argued for a “childcare infrastructure fund” that could cover “all staff salaries and other essential overheads”.
Paula, an NEU rep and early years teacher in Cambridge, said the union must be “combative” with the government.
“It should be like a bull terrier—get its teeth in and not let go,” she told Socialist Worker.
“It should be relentless in its demands for safety and funding for our sector, and make them publicly on a national level alongside other organisations. And activists have to organise on the ground.”
Adele said the whole sector can unite to take on the Tories.
She added that the battle is about what early years is for. “It shouldn’t be just all this ‘preparing for school’ from the age of two,” she argued.
“It’s a hopeful time if we have these debates.
“The sheer level of anger people feel around Covid has knocked on to other discussions about what the whole sector should look like.”