Early years workers struggling to access school places for their own children, Alliance warns

Leading early years organisation the Early Years Alliance has called on schools to ensure that early years staff are able to access critical worker places for their own children if they need them, following a growing number of reports of childcare workers being refused places because their partners are not classed as critical workers. 

Nurseries, pre-schools and childminders in England have been asked to remain open to all families during national lockdown and as critical workers, those working in the childcare and early education sector should be able to access school places for their own children attending primary or secondary school. However, a rising number of practitioners have raised concerns to the Alliance that they have been prevented from doing so as a result of some schools requiring both parents to be critical workers to access places. This is despite government guidance which states: “Children with at least one parent or carer who is a critical worker can go to school or college if required.” 

In many instances reported to the Alliance, the partners of those working in the early years sector hold jobs that cannot be done from home, such as construction.

A recent joint survey conducted by the Alliance and independent sector analysts Ceeda between 15 and 19 January 2021 found that, at the time of responding to the survey, approximately 8,000 staff working in nurseries, pre-schools and childminding settings were unable to work due to an ability to access school places for their own children.

Commenting, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: 

“We completely recognise the challenges that schools are facing in trying to keep the numbers of children attending during national lockdown at a minimum, especially at a time when the demand for critical worker places appears to be rising.

“However, we are concerned that the blanket approach being taken by some schools of requiring both parents to be critical workers to access a school place means that many of those working in the early years sector who genuinely do require – and are eligible for – a school place for their own children, are being prevented from accessing them.

“At a time when those working in nurseries, pre-schools and childminding settings are under so much pressure themselves, the ability to access a school place for their own children is often critical to ensuring that they themselves are able to continue the providing care and education that families need. As such, we urge all school leaders to ensure that their admissions policies aren’t inadvertently denying places to eligible parents, including those in the early years, who truly need them.” 



Toni Temple, an early years practitioner at Skylarks Community Pre-school in Horsham, West Sussex, and mother of a 10-year-old, said: 

"I worked from June to July in the setting and my daughter attended her primary school as I am classed as a 'key worker'. I then applied for her to attend school again in this lockdown, which she did for a week to then be told she can't have a place. Their reason is because my husband is not a critical worker and he should stay home. My husband is the main earner: he is a plasterer so cannot work from home. I have stated to the school that government guidelines say only one parent needs to be a 'keyworker'.

"My daughter currently comes to work with me and sits in the office, we then home-school when we get back (and I then help my son who is in secondary school). I feel that there are people taking their children in that do not need to and that I am being treated unfairly."

Rachael Payne, an early years practitioner based in Norfolk, and mother of a five-year-old and a nine-year-old, said:

"Our school originally offered our children a place given I'm a critical worker. My youngest had three children in her class – normally 32 – while my eldest was in class with just one other child in the morning, and a different child in the afternoon.  

“However, the following day, Norfolk County Council sent out guidance for schools to follow if they were heavily subscribed, and that afternoon, I received an email saying that my children can't have their place at school due to the new guidance. 

"My children are now having to spend half of the week with my parents and my husband, who can't do the majority of his job from home, is having to do some work from home two days a week and is working weekends as well as trying to home-school the children."

Francesca Walker of Kings Pre School Learning Group in Northampton, and mother of a five-year-old and an eight-year-old, said:

"I have been declined a school place for both of my children due to them requesting that both parents are critical workers, even though my partner is currently working.

"I have now had to be furloughed one day a week, as had my partner, so that we can work childcare between us both when this shouldn’t be needed.

"It is already a worrying time as my manager needs all of her staff at the moment, not for this to be happening. My manager and I have tried to challenge the school's decision, but unfortunately have not made any progress to date." 

Emily Porter-Howe, deputy manager, early years teacher and SENCo at Woodpeckers Private Nursery in Sudbury, Suffolk, and the mother of a four- and nine-year-old, said: 

"I am currently really struggling. I am running our setting due to two of the managers shielding. My husband works from home so we have had to split the children up each day. I take one with me to my office at work and try to help them which is very difficult when also trying to reassure and support my team of staff, risk assessments and running of the nursery. 

"It's very stressful. I feel like the early years sector has been abandoned. My staff feel deflated and stressed. We all love our job but feel at breaking point due to lack of support.

"I feel that I am juggling so many roles at the moment without any support or proper guidance. Things really do need to change.

"I understand that schools are under pressure too, due to a lack of clear government guidelines on who key workers are and the fact that there are so many businesses still open resulting in so many places being taken. There needs to be clearer guidance as at the moment, our aim should be to protect everyone and alleviate the pressure on the NHS."

Emma, acting manager at a pre-school in Berkshire and mother of 3 primary aged children, said:

"My children attend the local primary school while I am working, and I am constantly bombarded with emails questioning if they really need to go to school. My children have even been questioned by teaching assistants about my working hours and whereabouts.

"I feel guilty for working despite knowing I am doing nothing wrong. It's draining and disheartening that I am being put under this extra pressure."