On The Horizon – September 2023

Jennifer Liston-Smith’s monthly review reflects on key themes, news and public policy updates in the world of combining work and family for organisations, parents and carers.

Author: Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership, Bright Horizons

  1. Back to School

As the sun shines in ways not seen in the UK since children were last in classrooms, those long school holidays draw to a close. At least school strikes no longer loom ahead since negotiations over pay and conditions were resolved at the end of July for England and sooner in Wales and Scotland, though not fully in Northern Ireland.

Now it is the fabric of the buildings raising worry about whether schools will be open, housed in temporary accommodation or with pupils dispersed across alternative sites, in just over 100 affected schools with further surveys underway. Specifically the issue involves the presence of Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete (RAAC) used in public buildings from the 1950s to the 1990s which – though attractively light and fire-resistant – becomes crumbly when wet. Gillian Keegan, Secretary of State for Education has issued an article and a YouTube Q&A released by the Department for Education explaining the way forward and offering reassurance. Labour is calling for a Parliamentary vote on publishing a list of affected schools while Schools Minister Nick Gibb explained his wish that parents hear directly from the school ‘not to read about it in the media first”. Almost all schools should be able to continue with face-to-face education; however, for the small group of parents who may face short closures of schools, employer-sponsored back-up care could again be in demand as it was during the industrial action.

Recent research with over 1,000 parents by workspace provider IWG, reported in HRreview shows high levels of stress experienced by nearly two-thirds (62%) of working parents in juggling work around the school holidays. Over half (55%) use their annual leave this way, 43% adjust their work schedules, often opting to work fewer hours, 31% reported working early in the morning and 29% extend their work hours late into the evening. The research suggests nearly one-third (29%) of parents feel their job performance suffers as a result of the increased time allocation to childcare duties. Thanks to HRreview for also inviting my contribution recognising the positive, practical action leading employers are taking such as making holiday clubs a part of their back-up care. Those employers understand the engagement, peace of mind and productivity that all come with knowing children and young people are having fun, developmental experiences while their parents are delivering a great day's work.

Another potential parental source of concern over the summer was the annual round of GCSE, ‘A’ Level, and similar, exam results. Anxiety was somewhat heightened when A Levels returned to almost identical grades to 2019 and GCSEs came close to 2019 levels. We have been greatly encouraged by the growing number of employers making virtual tutoring a part of their back-up care programme through our partnership with Explore Learning, demonstrating employers’ understanding of parents’ ongoing concerns about educational catchup.

  1. Autumn conference themes

As the CIPD puts it in describing their Annual Conference and Exhibition, their aim is to ‘ensure that people are at the heart of our new economic paradigm’. Themes addressed by the Autumn’s big hitter HR conferences embrace AI – which tops the menu at the CIPD and Reba events – with a strong side of inclusion, attraction and retention (retention perhaps having the edge), wellbeing, and female career progression. Inclusion and wellbeing feature fully at Employee Benefits Live, along with a closing keynote on domestic violence from Ruth Dodsworth, TV presenter and journalist. There is growing interest in the employer’s role in supporting where domestic abuse is present as this HR magazine article highlights. Bright Horizons recently shared resources – developed internally and with Refuge, the domestic abuse charity – with our client partners. You can read more about these resources in our Foundation newsletter (p4).

HR Grapevine’s Employee Reward, Benefits & Wellbeing virtual event will explore data, financial and mental wellbeing as well as our own workshop asking: Is your talent plan keeping up with working parents and carers?

Other upcoming events for Bright Horizons include our Engage Business Media webinar taking an in-depth look at how Burges Salmon manages the parent transition with Wellbeing Lead and Senior L&D Partner, Simone Reilly.

We are also very proud to sponsor Working Families’ National Work-Life Week with involvement across all the week’s activities including the Culture Coffee Morning Webinar with Denise Priest on 3rd October and our input to the 5th October Making Flexible Working More Inclusive webinar.

  1. Financial wellbeing is still a key theme

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has revised its appraisal of the UK economy’s performance during 2020 and 2021. However, the present situation, according to this HR Magazine article, is that HR teams are advised to look out for workers struggling with higher mortgage costs from September and possibly taking on additional jobs to fund this. Dominic Bernard writes: 'High interest rates, expected to peak at 5.5% in September, are stretching homeowners’ budgets, with the average household expecting a £220 per month increase when they renew their mortgage deal, according to a study from flexible jobs platform Indeed Flex.' Anticipating these rises, 'more than half (54%) are cutting their spending, around a third (34%) are saving more, and just under a third (30%) are taking on extra work.'

Our experience is that such concerns continue to increase the number of employers looking to ease cost of living pressures by supporting their employees with childcare through employer-sponsored nursery partnerships. As described in this helpful article in Wired, published soon after this year’s Spring Budget announced the extension of funded childcare places, some employers have long been saving their employees money and stress in this way.

  1. Challenges in Early Education staffing and funding

The TUC has launched a call for a new care workforce strategy to tackle the staffing crisis facing both childcare and social care in England. The TUC shared results from Coram Family and Childcare showing: 'Every English region is struggling to recruit childcare workers.' 95% of English councils who responded reported that childcare providers in their area were having difficulty recruiting childcare workers with the right skills and experience to do the job.

This ties in with results from an annual survey, recently released by Department for Education, carried out with Ipsos with a nationally representative sample of 6,017 parents with children aged 0 to 14 in England. These results show a fall in availability of early education places alongside a trend toward more hours worked by mothers, in particular. Parents of children aged 0 to 4 years who felt there were not enough childcare places rose from 28% in 2021 to 34% in 2022. The release adds: ‘Long-term trends also show an increase in the percentage of mothers working since 2010. In 2010, 63% of mothers were working, in 2021 this had increased to 71% and in 2022 to 73%’. Working mothers also tended to move from part-time to full-time: ‘In 2010, 25% of all mothers were working full-time, but by 2022 this had almost doubled to 41%.

As you’ll be aware, the first extension of government-funded places is due to come into effect from next April:

  • From April 2024, 15 hours of funded care/education for two-year-olds
  • From September 2024, 15 hours of funded care/education from the age of nine months
  • From September 2025, 30 hours of funded care/education from age nine months up to starting school.

The 30 hours’ weekly allowance covers 38 weeks of the year making it nearly 22 hours a week if stretched across the year. The main concerns raised have been around the shortage of places (particularly given existing challenges in recruiting staff) and funding of the places, given historic and present gaps between funding passed on by Local Authorities and the cost of provision.

This recent BBC article, among many other sources, predicts a potential shortage of places to fulfil this. The Education Committee of MPs pointed out that the paramount importance of adequate funding, with Robin Walker, Committee chair, saying the childcare market faced significant challenges in "affordability and availability" and "simply extending the number of hours that the government calls 'free' will not work unless the funding rates accurately reflect the costs of providing high-quality early education and childcare". The report warned that under-funding would "see even more closures" in the childcare sector.

The Government opened a consultation on proposed funding plans, closing on 8th September. The consultation puts forward a ‘fair funding formula’, reflecting ‘extensive data gathering on the costs early years providers face in offering places for different age groups and how those costs vary across the country’.

Bright Horizons’ continued investment in our people will help us prepare for the anticipated increased demand. Bright Horizons invests in our colleagues through our apprenticeship programme and bespoke professional development courses such as Future Leaders for our nursery teams to grow our own talent pipeline and business-wide Leadership and Senior Leader programmes. Our summer contributions to sharing best practice also included this comprehensive account of Bright Horizons’ approach to Wellbeing shared by our Head of Reward, Wellbeing and Organisational Design, Daisy Newbery, with the British Safety Council.

  1. It’s education, not childcare

Much of the talk of funded early education places understandably focuses on the way this empowers parents to work. One of the necessary angles to emphasise here is that nurseries are not a kind of ‘parking place’ for children while parents work. For the child, the first five to six years are a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ when 90% of brain development occurs and patterns of learning and behaviour are set for the future.

This is very much reflected in the recently-launched Nurture Approach professional development programme developed by Bright Horizons in the UK in partnership with clinical psychologist, Dr Sarah Mundy. The programme focuses on child development, neuroscience and helping adults to understand the impact of their role in supporting children’s emotional wellbeing through building strong, supporting relationships.

Michelle Demirtas, Early Childhood Area Director with responsibility for Emotional Wellbeing, along with Head of Safeguarding, Cathy Hart led an early September symposium on 'Space, narratives, and approaches in children's wellbeing' at the EECERA 2023 conference in Portugal, discussing Bright Horizons’ Nurture Approach. As Director of Early Childhood, Caroline Wright puts it: ‘Our Bright Beginnings Curriculum provides the conditions for children to develop emotional health, a clear sense of identity and self-worth, the ability to recognise and manage emotions, to learn, play, enjoy friendships and relationships, and deal with difficulties. To fully complement our curriculum, we’ve identified through research and practice that there is a need to provide practitioners with a greater depth of knowledge and understanding about wellbeing, and the associated concepts of early brain development, emotional development, co-regulation and self-regulation.’