Before the days of the Covid-19 pandemic, the childcare sector was already facing numerous challenges. Since the start of the health crisis, the subsequent drop in usage of childcare services and the need for sector operators to wrangle with the ever-increasing costs of complying with social distancing and other rules have all taken their toll.
The impact of the pandemic on the childcare sector has not extended solely to providers, but also the working parents and families that the industry serves.
Hame Fae Hame, a flexible childcare service for one-to-12-year-olds based in Scalloway, Shetland, is one provider that has been forced to adapt to the pandemic challenge. Coming onto The Leaders Council podcast to share her experience of guiding the business through Covid to date, founder Kaye Sandison [pictured, left] admitted that it had posed the greatest challenge of her career so far.
Kaye said: “Covid has definitely been our greatest challenge and I think every business owner would say the same. When schools were initially ordered to close in the early part of 2020, we were worried about bankruptcy. I was sat in our building with 22 staff and four children and was worried about paying rent and wages. Luckily, this was alleviated by the government support measures that came in. Added to that was a raft of changing conditions: one week we would be allowed to have parents come into the building and then the next we could not. So, we were forced to contend with a constant reviewing of our policies and processes.”
Discussing how the new pandemic reality affected the parents of children coming into Hame Fae Hame’s care, Kaye explained that the transition into social distancing compliance had proven difficult for young families.
“Parents, especially new parents, have found it hard adjusting to the new rules we must abide by. We always used to invite parents into the building to come in and visit their children and see what we are doing, and we find when they are at ease seeing their children enjoying themselves, the children are at ease too. But when you have a situation where an anxious parent is resigned to dropping their children off at the door, it affects the ease of everyone. So that has been a difficult thing. One fortunate thing recently is that improvements to our outdoor area means that we can have the parents coming in and visiting us outdoors, which seems to be working a bit better.”
Having the ability to improve Hame Fae Hame’s outdoor facilities has been a major victory for Kaye and her team during the pandemic. In late 2020, Hame Fae Hame secured a raft of funding from the Scottish government to go toward helping reduce child poverty by improving access to care for families on low incomes, with a large sum of that money being invested into improving the outdoor area of the nursery.
Kaye commented: “The funding from Holyrood was very welcome indeed and I felt it was a recognition of our work over the last 13 years. I have always been passionate about providing flexible childcare, and it is important for low-income families and people starting their own businesses that they can access childcare that is affordable.
“The grants recognised that we had supported those families for years and it allowed us to enhance our service and facilities for those families. I also became aware during the Covid-19 pandemic that families who did not have access to gardens, especially when the public parks were closed, tended to be low-income families living in flats. So, I wanted to develop the outdoor space in our facilities for them to use, because they did not have access to that at home.
“At this point in terms of restrictions, Shetland is classified as Level Zero under the Scottish government system, but we have started picking up cases again and we cannot have parents and adults who are not nursery workers in the building, and masks are having to be worn indoors. So, we are maximising usage of the outdoor area by being outside as much as we can, and there is a covered area in the outdoor section, so children are able to go outside in rainy weather.”
Highlighting how working through the pandemic had impacted her and her team, Kaye revealed that having to work so closely together had strengthened the bond between everyone working within the business.
She said: “From a staff perspective, we formed a strong bond and got to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. In 2020, it was easy to keep staff morale up because we were only working with children of critical workers, and we had government support to fall back on. We formed a great team spirit, and we were seeing improvements as cases of Covid in Shetland were dropping.
“It was after Christmas 2020, when the second lockdown came in and Covid really hit us again, that we were tired and exhausted. But luckily, we were able to improve the outdoor area and got another timely morale boost following another significant victory for us during Covid.”
That significant victory Kaye spoke of came in the form of recognition by The Times and The Sunday Times in association with Lloyds Bank, with Hame Fae Hame being named a winner of the ‘Yes Business Can. Small Business of 2020’ competition, for having gone above and beyond during the pandemic.
Kaye recalled: “Part of the prize for winning that competition was a wonderful Zoom session with a big celebrity. We cannot say too much about it due to confidentiality, but I got a lot of good information and useful mentoring from that. The big thing for us was the recognition, and it came as a well-timed morale boost for us at a key time when it looked as if Covid was hitting us hard again and we felt exhausted.
“Since that time, it has been easier to maintain morale more recently. With restrictions being eased we are becoming busier, and children, staff and families are feeling good with the regular improvements going into our outdoor area. We also secured access to the National Living Wage recently and being able to pay that to help our staff has been important for us.”
Discussing what the legacy of Covid is likely to bring for the childcare sector, Kaye is now optimistic that with firms showing flexibility in enabling personnel to work from home in the long-term, the demand for flexible childcare services is only likely to increase which will leave Hame Fae Hame in a good place for the future.
“We are entering a period where more people are working from home. We are likely to see less traditional nine-to-five jobs and that will bring an increase in demand for care-at-home and part-time jobs. Childcare is going to be needed in this new world, and a lot more childcare settings will need to look at being flexible like us. Our flexibility should leave Hame Fae Hame in good stead for the future.”