Looking Toward a Post-Pandemic Sector: We Interview a Nursery Manager
TNL correspondent Anna McCallum interviews Liz Woolley, owner and manager of Hillbury House Nursery, to hear the impact of the pandemic on her setting and their thoughts on what comes next.
Although restrictions are easing, and we slowly but surely work our way towards July 19th’s full reopening, Covid19 remains part of our daily lives. Whether popping on a mask to go on a bus, or sanitising hands after shopping, remnants of the previous rollercoaster year still linger, as do some mixed feelings from the Early Years sector.
Many practitioners, managers and even parents of early years children acknowledge how plenty of people and businesses within the sector have struggled in recent months, due to particular challenges facing our early years settings.
We spoke with Liz Woolley, owner and manager of Hillbury House Nursery, to hear her views of how her setting has coped throughout pandemic and what more could have been done to help the sector.
Liz Woolley of Hillbury House Nursery, Hove
I: Did your setting remain open during lockdown?
L: We closed on March 23rd last year and we didn’t open again until June the 1st. We did have keyworker children, but only 2 and they did different days, so it wasn’t really viable staying open. Then on the 1st of June we opened a limited amount, opening up a bit more from July, and we’ve stayed open since then.
I: Have you lost any employees, either through budget cuts or staff leaving due to personal choice?
L: We actually did loose someone who had been there for I think about 28 years which was a personal choice. I think one of the reasons she did actually leave was during the lockdown period, it allowed her to reassess things, but we did lose a member of staff, and from that we have actually taken on new staff as well and haven’t had to let anyone go.
I: How many new employees have you taken on?
L: Annoyingly I had a new member of staff due to start the 23rd of March 2020 and one starting on the 1st of April 2020, so I was in the tricky limbo where they weren’t entitled to furlough. I think like many we were only expecting it to last a couple of weeks, so I did keep them on the pay roll and paid them the 80%, so technically that’s 2 new employees from the start of lockdown, and we’ve had another 3 start since then.
I: What has been your biggest struggle during the pandemic?
L: As an owner I would say trying to please everyone or trying to make sure everyone feels safe and you know that you’re doing the best you can do. That’s the parents, staff, children, local authorities, anyone that you may come into contact. Also PPE; we weren’t given any support at all and the amount we were going through was just a joke! It was something that was statutory, yet you get no support with it.
I: How do your numbers compare between pre and post lockdown?
L: We had a massive influx in September, we had loads of babies starting, all between ten months to a year old. I thought parents, especially of babies, would worry about sending their children out with everything going on, but they were really keen. I think after lockdown maybe, being locked up with your child 24/7, it’s probably not what everyone wants to be doing!? So to be honest my numbers are pretty good, I’ve got a waiting list, so I’m not doing too badly!
I: Covid impacted the school transition for some children, did you find you had many return to your setting before they left for school?
L: Yes we had 13 school leavers and only one didn’t return. It was really nice to spend that time with them before they left, it’s been a crazy year for them as well, so a little bit of normality for them before another big change, was what they needed.
I: Do you expect the recent delay to a full national reopening to impact you at all?
L: I don’t think so, to be honest I don’t think there’s been many changes that will effect the education industry recently. It was such a big relief that we were able to stay open after the January announcement, we don’t want to be closed.
I: Do you feel the sector received enough support during the past 18 months?
L: No, not in any way. Not with PPE, not with financial support as well. I mean the fact that they change the furlough scheme so quickly, where you had to deduct your funding amount off it, that shouldn’t be right. We’ve still got overheads to pay, not all our overheads are just staffing. The funding amount is so shockingly poor anyway that it doesn’t even cover anything anyway. The lack of support that we had then caused a lot of stress not just for me, but for my team, the parents and effectively that then rubs off on the children which is not what anyone wants.
I: Have any permanent changes been made since the pandemic?
L: We’ve hired professional cleaners who do regular deep cleans but also the regular cleaning. A lot of sterilising of toys, something that you probably wouldn’t do two times a day, we are now doing two times a day. We did do a virtual tour, but I’ve started letting people come back in, because I think it’s really important for people to get a feel for where they’re going to be sending their child and you just can’t do that online. It’s like buying a house where you need to go in a see it and feel it and see it in action. Parents also aren’t coming in to the setting at the moment, we’re not sure if that’s going to be something that stays as it seems to be better for the children if I’m honest. They just settle in better, especially in the mornings. Hopefully in September, we can invite parents back in for summer events, parents evenings and stay and play sessions, as long as it’s safe to do so.
I: Is there anything you wish was handled differently over the past year?
L: Everything. I think the complete disregard for the early years sector in general was disgusting if I’m honest. The fact we were referred to as ‘creches’ when we’re two very different things. We provide a safe space where children learn and develop. For some children that’s 50 hours a week, 51 weeks a year, we’re not a creche where you drop your kid off while you go to the gym, we are a lot more heavily involved than that. My team are educators, early years leaders, teachers with degrees and qualifications. We are expected to be under the same umbrella as schools but we’re not. We were the only ones allowed to stay open with hospitals and care homes and yet the focus just wasn’t there.
I: What do wish more people knew about the Early Years sector?
L: Not so much anymore, but from my past experience we are classed as just glorified babysitters, when actually what my team, myself and everyone else in the sector does is a whole lot bigger than that. The holistic experience a child has on a day-to-day basis, from the laughter and the fun but also the learning and development, the progress, the next steps, the transitions, its just so much broader then people think. As I mentioned earlier the training and qualifications that so many practitioners do, shouldn’t be belittled. I think parents do appreciate this, I wouldn’t say I feel underappreciated by any of our families at all, more so the general public. I’d love for people who think this way to come and do a ten hour day with us and for not great pay either! So yes, more funding for the sector too, but that’s a whole other issue I think!