This episode is the sixth in our Learning from Crisis ‘Connections’ series. It explores how Covid-19 has affected children, young people and families – and the impact this is having on women’s careers, children’s education and wellbeing, and our use of public space, particularly green space.
The closure of schools and nurseries back in March, turned the lives of parents and caregivers upside down – and brought the connection between childcare and employment firmly into the spotlight.
The UK’s early years childcare sector was already struggling – and it’s been hit hard by Covid. Up to one in four nurseries may close by Christmas, which will have a huge impact on children’s early education and the lives of working parents – especially mothers. Where nurseries are closing is also revealing. The Sutton Trust estimates that in the most disadvantaged areas a third of nurseries may be forced to close because they can’t afford to stay open. Disadvantaged children are already behind their wealthier peers by the time they start school – and nursery closures will only widen this gap.
School closures have also had a bigger impact on disadvantaged children, particularly Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic children. These children are disproportionately from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, more likely to live in overcrowded and multigenerational homes, and less likely to have good access to online learning.
And what about children’s play during the pandemic? Play is critical for keeping children mentally and physically well, and for teaching them how to socialise. Lockdown highlighted the importance of outdoor public space for children’s play – particularly in London where lots of families don’t have access to a private garden.
Although schools have re-opened and more people have returned to workplaces, case numbers are rising again and local lockdowns are being imposed across the country. How will the complex inter-relationships between childcare, education, employment and public space evolve in the next few months – and beyond? And what should national and local policy makers be doing to address these issues?
This episode features three speakers:
- Lucie Stephens is Head of Co-production at New Economics Foundation. Co-production is a way of working that brings together people’s lived experiences with professional skills, to design and deliver better services. Lucie’s currently working with parents to deliver parent-led childcare.
- Dr Zubaida Haque is the former Interim Director of the Runnymede Trust and a member of the Independent Sage, a group providing scientific advice to the UK government, and public, on the COVID-19 crisis. Zubaida has a strong research and policy background in ethnicity and inequality. She’s also written widely on race and crime, citizenship and integration issues.
- Tim Gill is an independent academic, advocate and consultant on childhood. He focuses on the changing nature of children’s play and free time, and their evolving relationships with the people and places around them. His book, Urban Playground: How child-friendly planning and design can save cities, will be published by RIBA in February 2021.
Listen to the podcast to hear from them and see a few of their key points below.
Fragility of the childcare sector
- Early years childcare is critical infrastructure, as important as roads and railways. It’s essential that we don’t let this infrastructure crumble because childcare plays two vital roles: it addresses early years inequality and helps close the educational gap between disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers, and it enables parents to balance work and family responsibilities.
- Without greater financial support, more nurseries will be forced to close. Childcare settings in poorer areas (which have disproportionate numbers of residents from BAME communities) are under the biggest pressure so we need to look at funding interventions to help them stay open.
- But in the longer term, we also have to tackle the high cost of childcare in the UK. This is also an opportunity to pursue alternative, not-for-profit models of childcare such as parent-led co-operative nurseries.
Women and gender equality
- We’ve heard a lot about the caring economy (care workers, key workers) during the pandemic but women have taken on a disproportionate amount of childcare, and for many this has meant having to reduce their hours or losing their jobs. Women from deprived backgrounds, including from black and ethnic minority backgrounds, have been particularly affected by this, with some admitting to skipping meals in order to feed their children.
- When business leaders and politicians talk about boosting skills and productivity, this cannot happen without an affordable, sustainable childcare sector – it’s the bedrock of parents, particularly mothers, being able to work and re-skill, and of enhanced productivity.
- Four million working women have children under the age of 10 but the issues affecting women (particularly in terms of childcare) have been almost invisible in the response to the pandemic. Women need a much greater voice and participation in the post-Covid recovery.
- Children have also been neglected in this pandemic. Given that the virus doesn’t really affect young children, they’ve had to make enormous sacrifices regarding their education and wellbeing.
- The government has stressed the importance of education but not play or peer-to-peer contact, which are essential to children’s wellbeing and development.
- The attempt to make children pay to use transport in London (after October half-term, according to the BBC) will hit children in deprived areas the hardest – and these areas are disproportionately home to BAME children.
- What will be the impact of further local lockdowns on children’s wellbeing and education? We need a much stronger lens on the impact of control measures on children in the future – and children and young people need to have a voice in post-Covid recovery as well.
- Families with more resources often live in areas with better access to green space (including better quality public space and private gardens). Deprived areas have on average 11 times less green spaces than wealthier areas, and it’s often of poorer quality. FoL recently ran a roundtable on green space, diversity and inequalities which asked the important question, does everybody feel welcome?
- Given what we know about the spread of the virus, this is the perfect time to pursue outdoor learning and re-think how green spaces can be managed to maximise their use for children and childcare providers. We’ve managed Nightingale hospitals; what about using green space for schools or nurseries?
Children’s infrastructure and the green recovery
- Children’s infrastructure includes childcare, playgrounds and green space but it also includes the wider qualities of the neighbourhoods where families live, such as streets, and walking and cycling networks.
- Smart responses to the pandemic should tackle other issues as well. Investing in children’s infrastructure (such as facilitating more walking and cycling) is a way to simultaneously address climate change and address inequalities, such as reducing high levels of air pollution in disadvantaged neighbourhoods.
- But we also need to be making children more visible and embedding them in the conversations about the built environment and post-Covid recovery. That way we can build a longer-term, collective consensus about what we want our streets, neighbourhoods, cities, and the economy to be like.
- Investing in the care-led economy, such as early years childcare, creates twice as many jobs as investing in other industries like construction – and these are low-carbon jobs. We don’t necessarily think of the care sector as a ‘green industry’ but it is.
What can – and should – be done better over the next few months?
More local lockdowns and tighter restrictions over the coming months now seem inevitable. What should government, local authorities and policymakers be doing to avoid some of the issues faced by children and families during the first lockdown?
- Keep early years childcare settings (nurseries, parent and baby groups) open. While we need to keep people safe from the virus, this has to be balanced with maintaining people’s wellbeing and children’s opportunities to play and develop. Given that the majority of children are not affected by Covid-19, there needs to be a more proportionate response to further lockdowns.
- Offer significant financial support and investment to the early years childcare sector to avoid more nursery closures.
- Keep schools open, to maintain children’s education but also their mental wellbeing.
- Use public space, particularly green space, for childcare and educational settings, giving children opportunities to socialise and learn outdoors.
- Consolidate and reconfigure existing work around making streets more child-friendly.
- Give extra support to poorer families; not only because of their economic circumstances but also because they’re much more likely to live in an area with a poorer quality built environment.
- Match rhetoric with action – if keeping schools open is a priority, other things like pubs and restaurants may have to close.
- Do equality impact assessment for all the measures taken in response to the pandemic, especially in relation to women, children and other disadvantaged groups.