Well it’s been another busy few weeks in Happity-land!
Buckle up for a fairly long post – but one worth reading. It includes the highs and lows of the last couple of weeks and some videos that I’m sure will make you goosebumpy on one hand, and desperate for change on another.
Meeting with BEIS and DHSC
Sara and I recently met with representatives from the BEIS and DHSC Government departments to share the importance of baby & toddler classes, why they haven’t returned despite Government allowing them for a while (e.g. since July in England and August in Scotland), and what is needed to get them back successfully.
We shared that classes and groups are important for baby development, preparing them for nursery/pre-school, and also for a parents mental health. With 92% of mothers admitting to feeling lonely, and feeling lonely making mental health issues 50% more likely, AND having a parent with mental health issues impacting negatively on a childs entire life (to the tune of £5.7bn yearly per cohort), groups are all agree that groups are needed.
Happity Industry Survey Results (Sept 2020)
We highlighted why so many classes and groups are yet to return respite the Government allowing them for well over 2 months, and having a specific exclusion from the rule of 6.
It comes down to the lack of guidelines.
- 42% of providers surveyed said they were still unsure whether the Government is allowing this sector to re-open
- On average providers had to read 5 different guidelines to piece together what they felt was allowed
- But still, 52% stated they had low to no confidence that these guidelines apply to their organisation – and for good reason…
Government officials are continuing to direct people to use incorrect guidelines that SPECIFICALLY say they are not for use where both a child and parent/carer are attending a session together.
We discussed how the baby & toddler classes sector is predominately run by small independents (often mums themselves) who are not prepared to put their customers’ health at risk – and the lack of confidence over how to operate safely is preventing a large number from re-opening.
Of those that have re-opened, half reported a significant increase in ongoing running costs (50% or more) as well as upfront costs in new equipment. However, less than 5% were willing to pass these costs onto customers – and are unlikely to be financially viable in the medium to long-term.
We foresee significant risk to this sector going forward – and a mental health crisis waiting to happen.
And of course, this effects vulnerable families the most:
“Families on lower income have contacted me to say they can no longer afford to come and feel priced out of children’s activities now.”
“My aim is to reduce isolation in parents in the rural areas where I live. If I increase my prices to cover these costs I’m alienating the very people who need this service the most.”
We asked for clear guidance, which we are well-placed to help coordinate with feedback and consultation from the sector.
And because the voluntary groups and children centres are harder to reopen yet due to the “stay and play” nature of their sessions, we asked for a voucher scheme to enable the most vulnerable families to attend paid classes – many of which will have to increase their prices if they haven’t already due to the increased venue, cleaning and equipment costs if they are to survive.
They agreed about the importance of classes (as do so many others – I think this post on Facebook and Instagram is one of our most shared to date), found the information re the realities of the lack of guidelines and the issues this is causing, and have promised to discuss it further internally and revert. So far we’ve not heard anything back re positive change, but we are following up periodically and have offered to coordinate the sector to help formulate sensible guidelines, reflecting the best practice that’s already being put into place.
We need even more signatures on our petition though to make this jump even higher on their agenda (we are aiming at 100k to get a Govt debate!) so PLEASE sign and share this petition.
Maternity Petition Debate
Then there was the Maternity Petition debate – the first debate physically back in Parliament with the amazing Catherine McKinnell fighting the corner of new parents. There are about 14 other MPs also agreeing with her report (which contained I think it was 24 recommendations, only one of which the BEIS Minister had agree to progress – the one to talk to Happity re the baby and toddler class industry).
One MP didn’t agree – saying maternity leave was for the physical recovery of the mother and so extended time wouldn’t work (we would argue that many mothers haven’t been able to physically recover due to physio/surgery not being as readily available and of course many not being able to take the time to look after the physical recovering being home alone potentially looking after school age children too!)
She also highlighted that lockdown was only actually March to July. At this point I was almost shouting at my TV screen that whilst that was true for many sectors of society, many new parents actually felt worse over the summer holidays and more lonely as over 5s could head merrily to clubs and groups with no social distancing, but there was still nowhere they could take their child. And of course now with the introduction of 6 person max (including babies) the informal meet-ups that mothers had started to resort to are banned. (NB baby groups are excluded and so can run with more than 6 but the lack of guidelines it why so many haven’t been able to return.)
She was also concerned about the impact of increase maternity leave on discrimination of women – a viable concern – however given this petition is about extending maternity leave just for those on mat leave during Covid, I think the positives of extending would far outweigh the negative of this (given that this is likely to be the case unfortunately anyway with many redundancies on the way – sad but true)
But the overwhelming story from MPs up and down the country was that more time, and additional support needs to be given to new parents at this time. I for one just don’t understand why the dentistry provision – given because a mothers teeth are impacted due to low calcium levels through pregnancy and breast-feeding – is not being extended despite it not being available the last 6 months for new mothers.
I wanted to share this clip of the closing part of Catherine McKinnell’s speech (I dare you to watch it without feeling emotional of going goose-pimply, I know I can’t.)
We know baby and toddler groups are needed to help babies develop and prepare for nursery/pre-school. We know parents need the peer support and community they provide. And it is worrying that the Government still isn’t doing anything to help.
Tim Loughton, another MP shared this horrible image of how some babies are now reacting when meeting others:
And we know this to be a problem. In the survey Happity conducted a few weeks ago many providers highlighted that children who used to be confident, in returning to their class were shy and nervous. That children felt overwhelmed, and in some cases unable to last the full 30minutes.
We need to get back to groups ASAP so that those yet to benefit from groups can do so, and those who used to attend, can get back to their normal sparky selves.
Another personal favourite moment of the debate (although it may be as I know his amazing wife who campaigns like me for mental health provision for new parents!) was when Gavin Robinson, the MP for Belfast said that we are “yet to hear a substantive rebuttal for the report”. And that the “government is nothing other than tone deaf” on the topic of new parents.
And this is true. The only reason the BEIS Minister gave to the petition, to the petition committee sessions, the report, and now this debate, was that the maternity benefits in the UK are sufficient and one of the best.
But as I was quoted during the session (with some interesting pronunciation!), and as numerous MPs quotes the UNICEF findings throughout the debate, this simple isn’t true:
But after all bar one MP wholeheartedly supporting the maternity petition, each bringing up different recommendations as necessary during these turbulent times, Paul Scully the Minister for BEIS again gave the same resounding no.
He said the session for interesting and informative. That he as a father remembers that social contact is important. That he sympathises that maternity isn’t being used as envisaged, and that he recognises we want to give babies the best start in life, and as social creatives that includes socialisation…
But yet again he then said nothing will be changed. That mothers have still been able to recover, bond and breastfeed. That they have had time to prepare for work. He highlighted the additional unpaid leave parents are entitled to each year (of course if they can afford it…) and once again that internationally it’s a good deal.
The one recommendation they did okay was to talk to us re getting baby & toddler classes back. That the convo we had I mention further up this blog. What would really help in getting those conversations going even faster would be for more signatures on our petition (we are aiming at 100k to get a Govt debate!) so PLEASE sign and share our petition.
But the story of our progress with the Government doesn’t end there.
Meeting with Andrea Leadsom
The next day I met with Andrea Leadsom who is doing a Childcare review – from the view of the baby and giving them the best start from conception to age 2.5.
(She was also at the maternity petition debate and said she wanted to ensure that after lockdown, parents can use maternity leave as the expected. Of course we all know that despite official lockdown being relaxed (in most places), baby and toddler groups in the most part are not returned. )
She wanted to understand what Happity did, how we have helped parents during Covid, and how we could help parents going forward.
Although she was unable to help with the immediate needs of the sector around guidelines and intervention, we are hopeful that some of the ideas shared with her about supporting the sector longer term will be considered in her review.
We offer free Happity membership to all Charities, CICs and community groups – and at this time we’ve been able to help many of these organisations manage their bookings and get their information online, especially as it’s often difficult for parents to get hold of.
Although we don’t make money from these groups, they are hugely important for parents to access, and we would love to have the support of Government particularly in helping Children’s Centres reach more parents.
It’s a segment of provision that we’ve always been dedicated to listing on Happity, even where it’s been expensive and time-consuming for us to do so – because it’s so important that every family can access this information. However, especially with the impact of covid, this is difficult for us to sustain financially in the long term. Children’s Centres need the help and resource to be able to manage their own listings.
I will be following up with her this week and next, and hope that by working with her on the best outcome of children, we can get the Government to listen and make changes.
They agree to the importance of baby and toddler classes and groups. But they are yet to make any huge positive changes.
I think they are trying (e.g. the exclusion of “baby playgroups” from the rule of 6) just they don’t know the ins and out of this amazing special industry, so need some pushing in the right direction.
Sara and I will continue to do our best to get as much support back for families through baby & toddler classes.
We can’t however do it alone.
What you can do to help your family
If you want more classes back, please sign and share this petition. It’s not just for providers to sign – it’s for all parents who also want to get back to classes.
If you want to input to Andrea Leadsom’s Childrens review you can fill out the survey (by 16th Oct midnight) here.
If you are a provider, you can also join our Facebook group for chat and tips on returning covid-secure, and you can list your classes for free on Happity. Even if you haven’t returned yet, you can register and get parents following you so that as soon as you do return they are easily notified.
If you are a parent, you can find classes near you on happity.co.uk, and sign up to our weekly “what’s on” newsletter which will send bespoke classes to you – importantly highlighting face-to-face classes available near you.
Finally, if you are on social media, we would really appreciate you helping us spread the word about Happity and what we are achieving. We are a team of 4 mums who absolutely love supporting you all, and if you can help us reach your corner of the UK, we can support you all the more.