Impacts of COVID-19
Since our consultation, all aspects of life in Scotland have been affected and altered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 threatens health and life directly and indirectly, through the impact it has on our health and care services and on how people are using those services. Beyond health, we know that the pandemic is also having wider societal impacts, with many people reporting feeling isolated and anxious; school closures affecting children's education and wellbeing; and economic impacts with damage inflicted on employment and prosperity.
Parents' and carers' ability to access both informal (family and friends) and formal, regulated childcare has been significantly limited at points over the course of the pandemic to date. Even now, almost one year after the pandemic began, restrictions remain in place and childcare settings are open but in line with COVID-19 operating guidance. We know that the way families use childcare has changed as a consequence of the pandemic, at least in the short term, and this has knock on effects for children, childcare providers, and employers alike. Childcare services remain a vital part of our economic infrastructure and play a crucial role in Scotland's ability to respond to and recover from the pandemic. It is important that we take stock of the new context families and childcare providers find themselves in and reflect on the impacts of the past year as we consider future direction for our school age childcare policy and indeed the context of the broader supports for families, of which childcare is an important component.
Scottish surveys carried out during or shortly after the initial lockdown showed a worsening in mental wellbeing among many children and young people, including anxiety and loneliness. There were some signs of recovery following the reopening of schools/childcare in August 2020, with indicative evidence of improvements in children's mental wellbeing, particularly for younger age groups. However, significant issues have remained for some children, particularly for older children and young people.
Children and young people
Children and young people in Scotland have experienced significant disruption to almost every aspect of their daily lives as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The restrictions imposed in response to COVID-19 were primarily concerned with protecting the right to life, but we know that these decisions have also had detrimental physical and mental health effects for children and young people, particularly in terms of social connection and education.
Research conducted by the Children's Parliament over the course of the pandemic shows that the majority of children and young people reported that they enjoy being with their family. However, children and young people have also reported experiencing boredom, loneliness and loss of energy over this time. The evidence shows disproportionate adverse impacts on certain groups such as children experiencing poverty, disabled children, shielding or clinically vulnerable children and care experienced children and young people. Young carers, too, have seen an increase in their caring responsibilities.
For example, a range of evidence shows that the pandemic has had a unique and disproportionate effect on disabled children, young people and their families. Impacts on routines and accessibility of support have caused significant disruption, anxiety and stress for many. Three of the main issues are:
- reduced levels of household income for families, alongside increased household costs,
- a reduction in both formal and informal support, causing significant strain for parents and carers, and negatively impacting on the wellbeing of disabled children and young people, and
- concerns about the future, particularly, keeping safe from COVID-19, and accessing support which is both meaningful and safe.
Many siblings of disabled children, often young carers themselves, have also had to care for their siblings and their parents due to paid care services being withdrawn, which further impacts on their own wellbeing and education.
For all children and young people, the loss of friendships and regular social connection over the course of the pandemic has been particularly challenging. As schools, childcare settings and other services began to open up in August 2020, research pointed to the importance of re-establishing friendships and the critical role of positive and supportive relationships for children's wellbeing more generally. Some evidence highlighted that having somewhere safe to meet with friends was an important factor for children and young people. Emerging UK evidence has also suggested that some children may have experienced a sustained loss of play and regular peer interaction during the pandemic, although the evidence on the impact on play is missed. Younger children (primary school age) appear to have been at greatest risk of loss of peer interaction (both online and in-person), with new evidence from the UK-wide Co-SPACE Study suggesting that this did not recover in the summer of 2020 when many restrictions were lifted. This evidence is consistent with Scottish evidence (Public Health Scotland CEYRIS survey) and suggests that even after the lifting of restrictions children may still miss out on regular peer interactions.
School closures and remote learning for almost all have shaped experiences for children and young people over the past year, and evidence indicates that this has had a negative impact on learning progress and attainment for some pupils. The Scottish Government has committed £330 million to support education recovery over 2020/21 and 2021/22. This includes investment to recruit additional teachers and staff to support those who need it most; devices and connectivity to lift children and young people out of digital exclusion as quickly as possible; and targeted youth work services.
Further, the Scottish Government's mission to reduce the poverty-related attainment gap remains central to our plans, with £182 million being invested in the Scottish Attainment Challenge in 2020/21 alone. Councils and schools have been able to redirect this Attainment Scotland Funding to help mitigate the impact of school closures on our most socio-economically disadvantaged children and families. This has for example, enabled the provision of digital devices to support learning at home and support for home-school link workers to maintain regular contact with children. It also supported the delivery of targeted learning and support programmes, including family support workers, provision of food and additional learning materials.
Youth work has an important role to play in education recovery. In September 2020, a £3 million Youth Work Education Recovery Fund was created to support opportunities for young people to engage or re-engage with youth work activities that build their confidence and skills; support their health and well-being; and that address the poverty-related attainment gap.
In the summer of 2020, the Scottish Government provided £400,000 for play charities through the Community Play Fund, to improve access to outdoor play for children in our most socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. The fund provided money to charities for organised play activities, equipment and clothing for children and young people to help as many of them as possible get back to being outside, being active and spending time with their friends.
We have also provided over £44 million to local authorities to continue the delivery of Free School Meal provision over school closures and holidays – on a cash first approach. This includes over £37 million for free school meal provision during school closures last year and holidays up to and including Easter 2021 reaching 156,000 children and young people and £7 million to continue free school meal provision during school closures in January 2021.
There is more work to be done to understand the ongoing impacts of the events of the past year for particular groups of children, young people and their families. It is vital that we listen to the unique ways the virus, and restrictive measures of the crisis, have affected different groups. This will strengthen future policy and enable us to consider both the current and future role that school age childcare services have to play in supporting children and young people as it becomes safe to broaden opportunities for in-person interaction, play and socialising.
Parents and carers
Parents and carers have also been impacted across their personal and professional lives as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. With access to school and childcare – both formal and informal –significantly restricted, parents, carers and young carers have faced full time caring responsibilities, alongside work or other commitments as well as doing their best to support their children's learning at home. There has also been a need for parents and carers to keep children entertained during the period of lockdown when usual activities and networks of support have been unavailable. Extended family support has also been negatively affected by the pandemic.
In addition, we know that many parents and carers have faced unprecedented challenges in terms of their employment arrangements and status. Home-working has become the default for many, while others have been unable to continue working. Other parents and carers will have experienced uncertainty and worry due to the strain being placed on their own businesses or work as self-employed people. The pandemic has resulted in loss of income and loss of employment for many families. The strain of increased caring responsibilities, alongside work commitments, and financial pressures or worries can have negative impact on the wellbeing and mental health of parents and carers, which can in turn negatively impact children's wellbeing. Many families have and will continue to require childcare at hours that it has been traditionally difficult to find childcare for, including evenings and weekends.
For some families who were already experiencing poverty, the pandemic has had profound impacts. Aberlour, a children's charity who work with vulnerable children, young people and families, have reported a rise in child protection and child wellbeing concerns, domestic abuse reporting and mental health issues. They have noted that the families they work with need additional supports to counter the worst effects and the consequential strain on family relationships, stress and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have provided financial support to Aberlour, and other children's charities, to support families in need over the course of the pandemic – both through the £350million Communities Fund and then the Winter Social Support Package.
We know that many of the challenges COVID-19 has presented for parents and carers have been disproportionately felt by women. Women are more likely to have caring responsibilities which can limit their ability to maintain or take on employment under normal circumstances, but in the context of the pandemic, this has a heightened impact. UK-level findings suggests that during school and nursery closures, childcare responsibilities fell more on women than men. This further limitation on women's labour market participation may have longer term implications for pay and for future career development and adverse impacts will be more severe for lone parents in particular (women account for the majority of lone parents). The pandemic has brought into sharper focus the need to progress the Scottish Government's work in the Gender Pay Gap Action Plan to "Develop an approach to treat investment in childcare and social care as economic infrastructure" as part of recognising the value that care – paid and unpaid – plays in both our economic and social wellbeing. This is a long–term action which aligns with our developing school age childcare policy.
The longer-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic remain to be seen, but it is likely that changes to the economy, employment practices and job losses will have implications for the way parents and carers manage their caring responsibilities, and may alter their needs and preferences in relation to school age childcare well beyond the crisis response period.
Regulated childcare providers
Regulated childcare providers have faced significant disruption over the past year, including:
- many being unable to operate for significant periods
- phased re-opening to support existing or new families as restrictions have allowed
- operating at reduced capacity in order to meet the requirements of operating guidance
- adapting to regular changes to operational guidance
- adapting to meet the changing demands of families for school age childcare
Childcare providers played a vital role in the lockdown phases of the pandemic response, delivering critical childcare to support those most in need and to ensure that keyworker parents had the childcare they needed to continue in their vital roles. Without the dedication of childcare providers and practitioners, Scotland would not have been able to respond to the pandemic in the way that it did. There have been valuable lessons learned from the critical childcare provision, particularly in terms of partnership working between local authorities and school age childcare care settings.
After the initial lockdown period, operational guidance for the reopening of regulated school age childcare services was published in July 2020, enabling settings to reopen safely. Since that time, the guidance has been refreshed to align with the Scottish Government's strategic approach to the pandemic response and providers have managed to adapt to new demands which have complex implications for their operating models. With further restrictions coming into place in early 2021, and with it further updates to operating guidance, school age childcare services have continued to adapt.
The Scottish Government, through the work streams of the COVID-19 Education Recovery Group, has worked closely with sector representative bodies, including the Scottish Out of School Care Network (SOSCN), the Scottish Childminding Association, Early Years Scotland, and the Care and Learning Alliance, throughout the pandemic. This constructive dialogue helped to balance the required public health measures, underpinned by scientific advice, with the delivery of high quality childcare for children and families. We have also worked with SOSCN directly to better understand the medium-long term impacts on the out of school care sector. Through a series of online workshops at the end of 2020, SOSCN members shared their experiences with us and talked about the challenges brought about by COVID-19, the changes they have seen in their sector and the lessons they have learned. This included feedback on operational challenges, changing demand from parents, financial sustainability, and changes in practice such as increasing focus on outdoor play and learning.
In a climate of economic uncertainty, the important role of school age childcare in enabling parents to continue to access work has been vitally important, and with limited opportunities for children to meet and play together in line with restrictions, these settings have given children a chance to socialise and interact in a safe environment. In the context of the pandemic, the positive wellbeing outcomes that high quality settings support have been more important than ever.
The financial implications of the pandemic for regulated childcare providers relate to increased expenditure associated with staffing, resources and materials and reduced income as a result of closures, reduced capacity and changing demand for services. This is concerning for existing services whose operating models were developed to meet families' needs in the pre-COVID-19 world. With less demand for places, some services have significant concerns about their financial sustainability. We are continuing to work closely with childcare providers to better understand the financial impacts and to understand the longer term consequences and support required to ensure the sector remains viable for the future.
The Scottish Government and UK Government introduced a range of measures to support businesses through the closure period, including the Small Business Support Grant, Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, the Self-employment Income Support Scheme, and the Bounce Back Loan Scheme. The Scottish Government has also introduced a range of targeted support for childcare providers including £11.2 million through the Transitional Support Fund and additional support through the Temporary Restrictions Fund (TRF) in the first months of 2021 .
The third round of the TRF will provide targeted financial support for school age childcare settings, acknowledging that this sector has been particularly impacted by COVID-19 restrictions. Settings will be entitled to claim TRF grants for the full four weeks of March, depending on which weeks they are open and operating. Settings who decide to open from the 15th March, in line with phase two of the reopening of education and childcare, will be able to claim for each of the weeks they are open in the month. In addition to this, all school age childcare settings will receive a restart grant, to assist with costs of reopening, linked to their registered capacity. More information about this financial support will be available on the Scottish Government website.
In the coming months we will undertake a financial sustainability health check to understand the impacts COVID-19 has had across the childcare sector, including taking account of particular challenges for different service types including school age childcare. This will inform our future policy development and any additional financial support to the sector as Scotland recovers from the impact of the pandemic.
Case Study COVID-19 Critical Childcare
Scamps Out of School Clubs Ltd, Aberdeen
As an organisation, and as individuals, we watched events around the world unfold with uncertainty and trepidation before COVID-19 arrived in March 2020. Following the decision from government to close schools and childcare settings, Scamps remained open as a hub to care for primary school age children whose parents and carers were working as frontline NHS staff and all categories of key workers. We worked as part of a co-ordinated partnership with Aberdeen City Council to support children from different schools across the city. We were allocated 24 funded places through the council and had a further 8 places for ad hoc usage. It has been a very positive experience for us building a stronger relationship with the Council, and is something that we hope to maintain going forward.
New safety measures were taken positively: socially distanced queuing, timed handwashing with increased frequency and temperature checks all very quickly became routine. The question "how are you?" became so important and we all learned to really listen to the answers. The first few days with very few children were difficult, but as children started to arrive from across the local authority, we could see how important the hub would be to getting keyworkers to the frontline of the COVID-19 response. We began to establish a routine, with each child having time to work on school lessons as well as coming together for physical activity, spending time outdoors, lunch and snacks, and of course playing together.
We spent time working on citizenship and emotional literacy with the children, exploring mindfulness and resilience and even collaborated to write a book on Scottish myths, which is in our library corner now. With children ranging from ages 5-12 from different schools, there were many unique challenges individual to each child, but staff quickly adapted to learning routines for each student. Some children thrived with the online learning challenges, others found it more difficult. Our staff quickly became experts in frozen computers (and turning them off and on again!). We managed to be creative with the holidays, making our own fun since normal trips weren't possible. We had a circus, picnics, dens, playparks, walks, and living history days where we learned about WWII and VE day or recreated 18th century recipes on the barbecue.
The legacy of the first lockdown was most keenly felt by students undergoing transitions. When our service reopened to all families we had a high numbers of primary 1 children joining and saw a distinct difference between children who had been in childcare during the lockdown and those who had been at home. Independent toileting and self-care (changing shoes, coats, dressing) was much harder for children who had been at home. Whilst physically they could manage these tasks, they struggled with following instructions as a group, being distracted by the sheer novelty of being around children again. Children from small families or those without siblings to play with had found lockdown particularly challenging, with some parents concerned about their wellbeing. Within half a day back in our setting, children who had been isolated through much of lockdown were settled, playing together and laughing.
We have seen unexpected positive outcomes from the past year in the form of resilience skills. We have kept this going by continuing to explore wellbeing, mindfulness and adaptability, and that question "how are you?" is one we use to reach out to each other and really listen to.
Childminders form a unique part of the regulated childcare sector, and are also facing challenges as a result of the pandemic. It is important to recognise that childminders are self-employed lone workers in most cases, who are not just providing childcare. They are also running a business, fulfilling obligations in respect of training, administration, and are responsible for marketing and attracting families to support through the service they provide.
Throughout the initial closure period over 1000 childminders remained open to provide critical childcare to children of key workers, and vulnerable children. Following the initial lockdown childminders were among those childcare services able to reopen first, and they remained open during the lockdown in early 2021. Safe reopening guidance specifically for childminding settings was developed based on scientific advice and in close consultation with the Scottish Childminding Association and Care and Learning Alliance.
Like other childcare providers, childminders have faced challenges related to increased outgoings and decreased income associated with the costs required to meet operating guidance and changes in the childcare demands of the families they support. Recognising these challenges, the Scottish Government has provided £3.2 million of business support for Childminding Services in 2021 by offering a grant of £750 to every registered childminder. This fund builds on support already provided to over 1,000 childminders through the Childminding Workforce Support Fund earlier in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Organised children's activities
Our draft framework from 2019 noted that organised activities and services form another important part of the school age childcare landscape in Scotland. These include a wide range of activities and services, including arts and culture programmes, sports clubs, youth work and outdoor learning providers which provide access to such activities for many children and young people round about the school day.
Over the course of the pandemic it has been very difficult and at times impossible to deliver such activities and programmes, due to strict limitations on group activities for different age groups of children both indoors and outdoors. Even during periods where they have been permitted, physical distancing requirements, and other health protection measures, have reduced capacities in sporting and other activities. Such measures are likely to continue for some time and have a direct impact on the operational capabilities of venue operators and the economic viability of some facilities.
Though still subject to restrictions, youth work services have, at times, been able to continue to deliver support to children and young people, due to the educational nature of their approach. Youth work organisations have played a key role in providing crisis support for the most vulnerable families and mitigating the impact of COVID-19 on children and young people's mental health, learning and development.
Many community based activity providers adapted to the needs of their local communities supporting the delivery of food, clothing and other essentials for the children and families who would normally access these services. In some cases, these activity services are provided for free or low cost, which makes them more affordable for families. For this reason, families living with low income may be more likely to rely on these services though cost remains a barrier, particularly when fees are requested in advance. Expectations of low cost delivery can put strain on those providers to keep costs down, especially when demand for those services increases.
We know that the four harms of COVID-19 – the direct health impact, other health impacts, societal impacts, and economic impacts – and their wide ranging implications will impact different groups of people in different ways. We have seen the immediate effects of the restrictions and the resulting implications for children and young people, their families and service providers who normally support them around the school day and in the holidays.
We have also heard of the incredible resilience of children and young people and of the remarkable adaptability of service providers and staff to manage through times of change and uncertainty to deliver outstanding support, care and love for the families they work with. Over the course of the pandemic, school age childcare settings have, at times, been one of the only spaces where children have been able to play with their peers and spend relaxed, enjoyable time with others outside of their own home, continuing to build and develop important relationships with trusted adults.
Over the past year, we have seen a renewed understanding of the importance of high quality school age childcare and the vital contribution it makes to children's outcomes, family wellbeing and economic stability. COVID-19 continues to be part of our lives and we can expect to live with protective measures for some time to come. The full scale of the pandemic's impact is not yet known and as we move through to recovery we will continue to monitor the impacts and consider our plans for future school age childcare in that context.
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