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BLOG: Bounce back or bumpy ride? What is happening with occupancy in early years provision?

How is occupancy building following the lifting of lockdown in early years provision? Ceeda has been tracking progress in childminding, day nursery and pre-school provision, with the help of PACEY and other leading early years organisations. Read on to get the latest insights and find out how you can contribute.

From a high of 77% in spring 2019, occupancy in early years provision has plummeted, averaging just 48% in nurseries and pre-schools and 35% in childminding settings at the end of the summer term. Nursery occupancy has seen marginal week-on-week growth, whilst occupancy in childminding provision has flat-lined in recent weeks .[i] Many are telling us September, traditionally when new children join a setting and older children move into primary school, will be make or break this year. If numbers do not pick up then, the sector is likely to experience major changes.

Average occupancy levels, summer 2020 (Ceeda)

Average occupancy in the summer term Source: Ceeda Covid-19 Tracker

What lies ahead as we approach the start of a new term?

A look at the evidence base suggests a quick bounce-back to normal occupancy levels is unlikely. 

  • Unemployment is set to rise significantly. As the furlough and Self-Employment Income Support Scheme fall away, the Bank of England predicts unemployment will rise sharply from 3.9% in the period March to May 2020, to 7.5% by the end of the year. Demand for private hours will inevitably be impacted.[ii]
  • Pay is depressed, leading to tighter household budgets. The Office for National Statistics report strong falls in pay in the three months to May 2020, dropping by 1.3% when inflation is accounted for.[iii] 
  • A permanent shift to more home-working? A recent survey of 6,000 office workers across Europe by access-management company Okta[iv] found only one in four UK white-collar workers are keen to go back to the workplace on a five-day-a-week basis. The long-term impact of home-working on childcare demand is not yet clear; ultimately this rests on the extent to which arrangements can meet the needs of children, parents’ and employers. Key will be how many parents believe they can reduce their childcare costs whilst juggling children and home-working. With so many families facing economic uncertainty, there is a risk some will look to just utilise their funded entitlements.     
  • A universal return to school. Limited opening of schools impacted demand for both pre-school childcare and out of school provision. The current expectation of a full return to school for all children in September will have a positive effect on autumn occupancy rates, should it come to pass.
  • Relaxing of bubbles in nursery and pre-school provision. The requirement to manage provision within small groups or ‘bubbles’ of up to 16 children was lifted on 20 July. Providers can now consider how best to minimise mixing in their settings, through their own risk assessments. This may have a positive impact on occupancy rates in settings where ‘bubble’ restrictions temporarily limited capacity.
  • Local outbreaks and the risk of a second peak. Local Covid-19 outbreaks will continue in the coming months, creating unpredictable occupancy troughs at local level. When it comes to isolated outbreaks within a specific setting, a recently reported experience suggests recovery can be swift when the incident is managed well.[v] A second national peak will, however, be unsustainable for many childcare providers.

Get involved

Occupancy is a vital measure of sector health – please help us to monitor the ongoing impact of the pandemic by taking part in the Ceeda Covid-19 Tracker study – a very short on-line survey carried out on a regular basis.

If you are a registered childminder, please click HERE to take part.

If you run a nursery or pre-school, please click HERE.

If you are already participating – THANK YOU! Please watch out for your latest survey invitation sent direct to your inbox.

About the author

Dr Jo Verrill is Managing Director at Ceeda, an independent research agency specialising in analysis of the early years education and childcare sector. Widely acknowledged as leading sector analysts, Ceeda’s work is widely referenced across the childcare sector, in key publications and at Westminster.


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