Written evidence submitted by YMCA England & Wales
Written Evidence Submitted by YMCA England & Wales
YMCA England & Wales welcomes the opportunity to participate in the Education Select Committee’s consultation on the impact of COVID-19 on children’s & educational services. While this period of time has been extremely taxing for providers, YMCA England & Wales believes that it is the period of re-opening of services in line with Government guidelines which will have the most concerning impact on the financial viability of the sector, and as such could see many providers forced to close. This is in part due to Government social distancing and “bubble” guidance, as well as financial pressures caused by low take-up for placements due to low public confidence in safety. YMCA England & Wales believes that the Government must consider ways to mitigate this financial impact as a matter of urgency in order to ensure sustainability of providers in the sector. YMCA England & Wales has provided recommendations at the end of this document which we believe could assist in mitigating the predicted financial pressures that the sector will face, and ensure both jobs and places for children can be protected.
- Introduction. YMCA England & Wales is the oldest and largest youth charity in the world, and represents a federated organisation of over 116 local YMCAs which serve their local community. We provide a wide range of services and support, including education, training, and wrap-around childcare for 298,000 young people and families every year. YMCA is the largest voluntary sector provider of nursery and childcare provision in England & Wales today. In addition to this, YMCA reaches 33,500 young people every year through our youth work.
- As a service provider, YMCA England & Wales welcomes the opportunity to provide our specialist and expert understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on the childcare and education sector, and reflect the experiences of young people in the impact of COVID-19 on their education and emotional wellbeing. In compiling our evidence for this inquiry, YMCA England & Wales spoke to 15 different YMCAs providing nursery provision, and 10 young people who are engaged with YMCA services. We welcome the Education Select Committee’s focus on this vital area and look forward to the opportunity to work closely with the committee in the future and provide further evidence if requested.
- YMCA England & Wales wishes to highlight that the current nursery sector is fragile, and warns that the resilience of the sector should not be overestimated and assumed to be in line with other businesses. This fragility is in part due to the insufficient amount of funding that nurseries receive for state funded children’s places, which is currently not enough to cover the costs of providing the service. Nurseries are forced to mitigate this by charging top-up fees, if allowed to do so by the Local Authority, or else run at a loss. This financial pressure has been magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic; the financial health of a nursery before the pandemic will have a strong impact on its resilience as the sector begins to re-open.
- Impact of Critical Worker Scheme. Across the country, YMCAs have made an active decision to keep nursery settings open to provide for the children of critical and key workers in line with the Government’s critical worker policy. Meanwhile in the broader sector, many independent providers closed as it was not financially viable for them to continue with reduced numbers. This has meant that in some instances, there has been an influx of demand for the service from parents to YMCAs. In some instances, YMCAs have continued to be able to provide their services because they have been able to take on intake from other closed nurseries. Many YMCAs however are currently running at a financial loss due to their decision to keep services open to support critical workers at this difficult time. YMCAs reflected that uptake from critical workers had not been as large as could have been expected, with some nurseries remaining open to provide for as few as four children. In most situations, take-up of nursery places has been around 25% of typical capacity.
- Through our discussions with local YMCAs providing childcare, YMCA England & Wales notes that an inconsistency exists between how different Local Authorities have applied Government guidance for nurseries, particularly with grant funding for places. In some instances, where a child has been relocated to a new childcare provision, their grant funding has also been reallocated to the new nursery. However, in some situations, Local Authorities have not reallocated this grant funding because it has already gone to the other nursery that has now closed. In these situations, parents have had to pay additionally for the new nursery setting. YMCAs have worked to mitigate this financial cost wherever possible, by providing a key-worker discount, as they felt it was the right thing to do in order to provide a necessary service.
- Multiple YMCAs have reported that there have been issues with schools not identifying their nursery staff as key workers, and refusing to take their children. This has applied strong sectoral pressure as nursery workers have not been able to send their children to school to go to work, leading to staff shortages when providing the necessary provision for key workers.
- Financial Implications. YMCA England & Wales notes that much of the funding support for places during COVID-19 has the prerequisite that provision remains open on bank holidays, which has led to reduced numbers of children in attendance and financial loss. In some situations, YMCAs also reflected that Local Authorities were not allowing nurseries to charge top-up fees for the provision, which has further increased financial pressure on the sector. There has also been a notable discrepancy in support offered to nurseries by Local Authorities, with some offering (varying levels) of flat rate support, and some not offering any. This discrepancy has led to YMCAs with childcare provision spanning multiple Local Authorities often receiving inconsistent funding for each place.
- YMCAs have in general been able to scale their provision to meet the requirements in the local area, keeping nurseries open or re-opening them to meet demand from key workers. In some situations, provisions have closed and relocated their children to another nearby YMCA provision in order to mitigate financial loss. But, this has not been sufficient in preventing the nursery settings still open from running at a loss.
- In line with Government guidance to nurseries, maintained funding for childcare places has been vital in protecting income for the sector as nurseries have been able to financially support the place for children of key workers. However, in these situations, it has meant that nurseries have had trouble accessing the Government’s furloughing scheme to scale their provision effectively.
- YMCA England & Wales recognises the profound benefits of the Government’s furloughing scheme and reflects that YMCAs have considered it a “saviour” at this time. We strongly welcome the Government’s decision to extend the scheme until October. In our conversations with YMCAs, it was noted that, in line with Government guidance, nurseries have been able to claim furlough for workers that are not state funded. However, the practical application of this has been difficult, as it has not been possible to “part furlough” staff: in some situations, a staff member may be only partially funded by the state.
- However, YMCA England & Wales considers the biggest challenge to be yet to come for the sector, namely reopening in line with the Government’s returning to work strategy in June. Re-opening and un-furloughing staff accordingly has the potential to be extremely damaging to the sector, should demand not immediately be met by children returning to childcare. At this time, it will not be possible to make staffing and financial efficiencies. From a non-commercial perspective, YMCAs feel strongly that they have a duty to offer care to families who need it, but warn that managing this provision safely in line with Government guidance on social distancing will incur large cost implications and low income that will impact very negatively on the financial viability across the sector for nurseries to continue.
- YMCAs have been proactively reaching out to parents following the Government’s announcements regarding reopening of provision from 1 June to gauge take-up, and have noted that this is considerably less than the same time last year: only 20-30% of parents say they would want to place their child back in nursery at this time. YMCAs are additionally concerned that actual numbers are currently likely to be a lot lower than this figure. Re-opening to maximum capacity would therefore at this time not be financially viable, and nurseries would need the ability to re-furlough staff again based on take-up from parents.
- Crucially, YMCAs felt that the September intake would be a “make-or-break" moment for the sector. As based on conversations with parents, take-up was likely to be reduced compared to the same time last year. If grant placements are offered based on registered take-up this September alone, it will mean that many nurseries will not receive enough funding to stay financially viable without a full cohort of funding.
- Furthermore, YMCAs are concerned that maintaining social distancing in line with the Government’s explorative “bubble” guidance will also present a challenge to nurseries. YMCAs have been exploring the feasibility of this through a number of measures, such as separating children into family groups, and regulating time windows for when children can come in to minimise parent contact and reduce contact with other children. However, the most pressing concern on these methods is staffing levels in order to maintain limited contact between one nursery worker and multiple groups of children. YMCA England & Wales estimates to re-open in line with the current Government plans will likely to cost nurseries several thousand pounds a week – and as a result cause the sector to struggle maintaining its financial viability. YMCA England & Wales also notes that placements for children under 3 years will require additional flexibility, due to the level of supervision and care that very young children require.
- YMCAs agreed that more flexibility would be necessary to provide the wraparound care required by parents as they re-enter the workplace. For example, Government plans to stagger working hours will have knock-on effects to the childcare sector. with nurseries required to stay open longer hours to meet the childcare needs of parents returning to work, leading to increased staffing demands and costs associated with providing the care.
- In the case of after-school clubs, financial viability is based upon numbers attended alone. Therefore, operating after-school clubs at reduced capacity due to social distancing measures alongside reduced numbers of young people returning to school causing demand to fall would mean that after-school clubs could not operate in a financially viable form in the immediate term. In addition to this, YMCAs noted that schools at present had adopted policies where no non-school staff would be allowed on site – meaning that for the foreseeable future, it would not be possible to operate after school clubs.
- Similarly, both out-of-school clubs and nurseries will face challenges taking children from different classrooms under the Government’s suggested “bubble” guidance. In regular settings, after-school clubs would expect to take around 25 young people from multiple year groups. However, to be in line with Guidance, they would be required to separate these groups in the out-of-school clubs setting, requiring increased staff numbers and costs. Because of these factors, the current bubble model would act as a barrier, making it unlikely for all services to be able to restart. This issue is further compounded by reports from YMCAs that in many situations, waiting lists have doubled, which the sector does not have capacity to meet under the Government’s guidance.
- YMCA England & Wales also wishes to highlight structural issues with the Government’s bubble model, relating to the nature of the childcare workforce. At present, childcare staff are rarely based in one provision or setting, and often work across multiple schools and settings at different points of the day (such as breakfast clubs, preschool during the day, after school clubs, as well as disabled schools and outdoor recreational activities). For childcare workers to adhere to Government guidance on this would confine them to one set of children, unable to work across other services. This would not only present financial difficulties for the workforce, but would debilitate the staff capacity of the sector in its wraparound provision.
- YMCAs feel strongly that in the longer term, many nurseries will struggle to survive the financial costs and pressures associated with the Return to Work programme without support from Government. YMCA England & Wales would like to warn that these pressures are likely to mean market consolidation within the sector, with many individual and independent nurseries forced to close. This issue is compounded by the Early Years Funding Rate, which at present is not sufficient to provide financially viable placements. Consolidation of the sector will increase pressure on providers that remain open, as once nursery numbers return to normal, there is a possibility that there will not be enough places for children in nurseries.
- Additionally, YMCAs were concerned that at present, Local Authorities did not understand the challenges and complexities faced by the sector regarding re-opening and assumed that re-opening a nursery would be a simple process. There was little consideration for the reduced take-up of provision caused by low parent confidence in returning their children to childcare. In situations, there have already been reports of provision considering redundancies, due to no confidence that places would immediately fill back up in line with the timeline proposed by the Government.
- YMCAs have strived to encourage parent confidence when possible, with plans for socially distanced tours outside of opening hours, and virtual show arounds. However, greater public confidence will be crucial in ensuring that the sector can reopen effectively.
- Impact on young people and children. YMCA helps almost 68,000 people every year engage in training and education, including running schools, and providing access to training and apprenticeships. YMCA also reaches 33,500 young people every year through our youth work. YMCA is therefore able to offer direct, practical understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on educational settings as a service provider.
- YMCAs reflected that this was the area that they were most concerned about. During this time of crisis, YMCAs have strived to provide support for children and families wherever possible, including providing food and basic equipment for SEN children, and online portal systems to send parents materials so learning could continue at home, made possible due to grant funding.
- However, YMCAs noted that the success of these schemes has been contingent on parent engagement, which was a recurrent area of concern for the sector. Multiple YMCAs reporting vulnerable young people “going offline”, leaving providers with no other recourse than to refer them to Social Services. YMCA England & Wales is extremely concerned that young people are falling through the net when achieving basic learning outcomes and meeting needs, as well as those at key “moving up” phases in education. While the Government’s decision to distribute laptops and dongles for those without learning provision is welcome, the impact of this has not been as effective as necessary in order to ensure that young people are obtaining the educational outcomes required.
- YMCAs were confident in many instances that they had the connections and local networks that would allow them to provide food and educational deliveries to young people, but at present this provision has been contingent on private donations from corporate providers and would be feasibly unlikely to continue without similar levels of financial support. YMCAs reported in some instances using Pupil Premium funding to send home learning materials and resources, including basic learning materials like pens, paper, and books.
- Where schools had been able to remain open, YMCAs providing this service reported that attendance and take up had been strong with pupils, and teachers had been able to provide mentoring over the telephone. However, this form of dynamic learning was recognised as less effective in educating young people as face to face education, and a return to face to face education would be desirable in order to ensure the best learning outcomes. Young people that YMCA England & Wales have spoken to have reflected to us that in many instances, they have felt overwhelmed by the amount of work being sent home, and this has exponentially increased pressure and anxiety on them. It was felt that the workload provided by schools at home did not recognise circumstances where they may be unable to work without interruption or have sustained access to a computer due to the parent requiring it or withholding access to it, which had meant that they had struggled to complete work in line with the deadlines set by schools. Young people felt that the workload was significantly higher than what they experienced in a typical educational setting and they were having to spend the entire day sat at a computer which was detrimental to their mental health. Young people have also reflected to us that they felt disheartened by missing out on rites of passage, and felt particularly despondent that they would miss out on opportunities to travel this summer, proms, leaving parties and “Freshers’ Weeks”.
- Similarly, YMCAs reflected that lacking a physical setting meant that teachers and youth workers were unable to provide the same level of assessment as they would in a face-to-face setting. YMCAs recognised that they had needed to contact child protection in a number of instances as they had been unable to get in touch with families. Additionally, YMCAs found that young people that they considered most at risk or least on track (and therefore the immediate priorities to return to educational settings) were from families that had responded least positively at returning their child to school, or engaged the least with the educational materials sent home. It was felt that in many instances, families engaging in home learning were those with children already “on track” and this presents strong concerns for the impacts of COVID-19 on the educational outcomes of struggling pupils. Similarly, YMCAs were not confident that vulnerable young people with complex medical vulnerabilities who required additional learning support were able to engage as successfully with the learning materials.
- YMCA has been able to support young people through youth work virtually during this time. However, from a safeguarding perspective, YMCA England & Wales notes a new vulnerability has become apparent where parents have interfered with the relationship between the youth worker and young person, either by stopping the young person having conversations with the youth worker, or their presence meaning that a young person did not feel comfortable talking about their concerns. YMCA England & Wales has spoken to young people specifically about how they have felt lockdown has related to youth work, and young people also reflected to us that being “in a small house” and not feeling like they had privacy meant that they were uncomfortable talking about their issues with either youth workers or counsellors.
There had been situations where a youth worker had seen something over video conferencing where they had been given concern to refer them to Social Services. While relationships with Local Authorities have typically been good, YMCAs anecdotally noted that their concerns were rarely enough to meet the threshold required by Social Services to trigger a visit, meaning that at present there is a low level of response to potentially vulnerable young people.
Additionally, YMCAs reported a disparity between how Local Commissioning Teams shared their information of at-risk young people: in some situations YMCAs and LCTs were able to share notes on young people who they had concerns over, but in other situations this list was not being shared.
- Future resilience. Regarding nursery provision and supporting young people up to school age, YMCAs felt that there needed to be better consideration of how the nursery sector is regarded as part of the educational system, and that nurseries were somewhat of a neglected partner in COVID-19 guidance that had been issued by the Government (owing to being lower on a priority chain to local authority providers receiving guidance and clarity more rapidly). YMCAs also agreed that commercial providers of nursery provision had, for the most part, shut and not provided support at a time of crisis. YMCAs have made a point of keeping their services open as we have seen it as a necessary service to support people. The role they continue to play in the community as we have always done should be recognised going forwards. Regarding schools and youth work, YMCA England & Wales reiterates concerns of the practicality of providing wraparound care for children and young people in line with the Government’s social distancing guidelines, and the ability for employees in the sector to meet the different childcare requirements. Regarding youth work, YMCAs were concerned that there would be an increase in safeguarding referrals once lockdown begins to be lifted, and it is vital to ensure that local authorities have the capacity to meet this effectively. YMCA England & Wales is concerned that the impact to young people’s education and wellbeing will only begin to be fully understood once returning from lockdown.
- Local Authorities should consider reallocating funding for a nursery place for a child in a case where their regular nursery provider has closed in order to support their placement in another service.
- If a nursery has remained open but a child with a funded place is not in attendance, local authorities should maintain funding for this place to the nursery, provided it remains open. This is in order to provide spaces for other children and meet demand from parents.
- The Government must continue to financially support nurseries during the re-opening period, as it will not be possible to make efficiencies or operate financially viably unless a full intake of children is met immediately.
- The Government should maintain funding for nursery places in September based on a “same point last year” model in order to ensure the maintenance of capacity for spaces in the sector.
- The Government must urgently review the Early Years Funding rate for funded places at nurseries, in order to ensure that it fully covers the associated costs with providing placements for children.
- The Government must review their proposed “bubble” model as part of their back to work plan, in order to ensure that schools and nurseries can re-open in line with their guidelines and remain financially viable. The Government should consider providing financial support to nurseries to hire more staff in order to support running provision in line with social distancing and smaller groupings.
- The Government must work to ensure public confidence in its back to work plan, to ensure that the public are confident returning to work and placing their children back in schools and nursery provision.