Nursery staff fear for their mental health, with high levels of anxiety and frustration

Initial findings of a large scale research project looking at the challenges the pandemic poses for the sector reveal ‘striking’ levels of frustration and anger among nursery staff. Working through successive lockdowns has left nursery staff fearing for their mental and physical health, with many of them having no access to full sick pay, a new study has found.

Initial findings from the first wave of the Childcare during COVID-19 study – a large-scale research project looking at the challenges that the pandemic presents for the sector – reveal ‘striking’ levels of frustration and anger among childcare professionals as a result of the pressures they have faced, as well as feeling undervalued.

Nursery staff told of their fear and anxiety when going into work, because of the potential exposure to Covid, and many reported that they worked without sick pay.

‘Staff felt we were being put at risk’

Some of the interviews with 44 childcare practitioners and 38 nursery managers took place during the third lockdown. From 4 January 2021, primary and secondary schools were asked to close to everyone apart from the children of key workers and vulnerable children, while early years settings were expected to remain open to all children.

A practitioner from an independent nursery in London said: ‘I think that’s what the anger issues were when they announced we had to stay open. Staff felt we were being used as guinea pigs and being put at risk. And that we’re not like teachers in school, we don’t get sick pay. You know, private settings. We are paid the lowest amount and we don’t get sick pay, we don’t get holiday pay, and I think that’s what the general anger was at.’

During this time, an important concern for nursery managers was dealing with feelings of neglect and anxiety among staff.

One headteacher at a maintained nursery school in Yorkshire said: ‘Staff are angry, feel undervalued, feel overlooked, feel vulnerable, feel that it’s discriminatory in that it exists…because most, a high percentage of the childcare workforce is female, and feel expendable and that nobody really kind of cares about them… do they really understand the anxiety that my team are feeling, do they really understand the pressure that is on us to keep the thing, to keep it all running when we’ve got pressure from parents, pressure from local authority, pressure from the government, staff engagement…’

Nursery managers and staff articulated that they felt that the Government’s instrumental rationale for expecting early years settings to remain open was solely to enable parental employment. It seemed to them that children’s care and education was not at the centre of policy rationale, the research found.

Low pay and lack of recognition

Key issues for early years staff continue to be low pay and lack of recognition. This was especially the case when work intensification and enhanced responsibilities during the pandemic were not reflected in pay, and where staff were initially not recognised as key workers.

A SENCO at a maintained nursery school said: ‘I don’t care whether I’m called a key worker, my wages are still frozen. My colleagues are still paid as though they’re stacking shelves in supermarkets, when they’re doing really skilful work. It pisses me off.’

Some nursery managers and leaders believed the educational aspect of their work was misunderstood or deliberately side-lined.

An early years professional who works at an independent nursery in London said: ‘We do the most important job, we nurture these children, we provide them with the skills that they need to be ready for school and to thrive. You know, we make them into hopefully independent children, resilient, who can self-regulate. I don’t think that’s perceived to be what a lot of the society thinks is education. I don’t think they think that education starts until they walk into a school gate.’

Nursery staff placed under ‘significant strain’

Jennifer Tomlinson, professor of gender and employment relations at University of Leeds, who is leading the project, said: ‘It is clear from our first findings that nursery staff have been placed under significant strain to continue to provide education and care during the Covid-19 pandemic. This has often been at a cost to their own health and wellbeing. We have been concerned at the level of risk and vulnerability to Covid nursery staff have been exposed to, often without access to full sick pay.’

She added: ‘The level of frustration and anger among nursery workers has been striking; nurseries have provided essential support to children and working families over the past year, yet their work continues to be undervalued and there is a lack of recognition from government and in public discussion of the important early education nursery staff provide.’

The Childcare during COVID-19 study was funded by the UKRI Rapid Response Covid Grant and carried out by a team of researchers at Universities of Leeds and Bristol. Between November 2020 and February 2021 interviews took place across a range of settings – PVI nurseries, state maintained and pre-school – in London, the South West, North of England, and Wales.

Source Early Years Educator

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