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April 8, 2023
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A group of early years workers who lost their jobs without warning days after a one-day strike have called on others in the sector to “stand up and be counted”.

More than 50 staff, thought to be the first group of early years workers to have their union recognised in England, were put out of work, leaving 200 families scrambling to find childcare, when the Orchard nursery in Huyton, Merseyside, closed suddenly.

Standing outside the chained gates of the nursery, where a laminated sign states that the nursery will be closed permanently and tells staff to “contact your union”, Marie Darwin, a former staff member, said it was time for workers in the low-paid sector to stick together, “because if this can happen to us today, it can happen to you tomorrow”.

Former staff at the Huyton nursery said they had joined the Unison union after struggling to survive on low wages amid high staff turnover. Some had second jobs, while others were using food banks and borrowing from friends and family to survive, said one, Gill Ravenscroft. “We just literally could not live on the wages we had,” she said.

After being recognised as members of the union when more than 70% of staff joined up, staff went on strike for a day, on budget day. Two days later, on 17 March, the nursery closed its doors.

Experts and unions have said that the nursery closure should act as a warning to ministers about the how precarious the sector and its staffing crisis is, even before a big expansion in government-subsidised childcare announced in the spring budget.

Parents and staff were greeted by this sign on the nursery gates. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

The first parents knew of the closure was when they read signs on the gates the next morning, apologising for “any inconvenience caused”.

The impact was more than inconvenient, said Becci Sanders, whose three-year-old son attended the nursery. “I was in shock, because I actually couldn’t believe that was allowed to happen, that a nursery could just close when you’ve paid in advance,” she said.

Sanders, an early years educator in a school, had to resort to taking her son to work with her. But it is the impact on her boy and the nursery staff that makes her most angry. “Young children need stability, they need to feel safe,” she said. “And that was stripped away.”

In an email to parents sent after the closure, the nursery’s owners said after taking advice and considering “all options”, they had “made the regrettable decision to place the company into voluntary liquidation”.

The directors of Orchard day nursery, who are also directors of the Brightstart day nursery group and of a number of nurseries across the north of England, did not respond to a request for comment.

Sarah Ronan, early education and childcare lead at the Women’s Budget Group (WBG), said most nursery owners wanted better pay for staff, but were struggling because the current “free” hours provision for three- to four-year-olds was underfunded by the government. Jeremy Hunt’s promised £240m increase to bridge the gap was far short of the £1.8bn needed, she said.

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Messages attached to gates  Tributes left on the locked gates after the Orchard day nursery closed. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

The WBG puts the total cost of funding provision of all free hours in 2025-26 at £9.4bn – £5.2bn more than the £4.1bn by 2027-28 promised by the government.

“Instead of focusing on headline-grabbing policies about expanding the free hours, the government should really be working to stabilise the sector, and that starts with realistic funding levels,” she said.

Sam Freedman, senior fellow at the Institute for Government, said he believed the proposed funding was “roughly right”, but it assumed staff being paid at current levels, which was unsustainable. “Early years workers are some of the worst paid in the country, (with) few routes to better pay,” he said. “That’s not only wrong, but also will mean nurseries struggle to recruit in areas with tight labour markets.”

Neil Leitch, head of the Early Years Alliance, said increased union membership, currently low in the sector, could help fight for better wages. “I think if our sector was strongly unionised, colleagues would be treated much better,” he said. “These people are shaping the lives of our youngest children. Why wouldn’t you value them?”

Events in Knowsley are already rippling throughout the UK, said the branch organiser Karen Greer. In June, Unison will vote on a motion for a national campaign for early years workers. “What’s happened here is really significant,” she said. “It’s shone a light on the sector.”

Outside the closed gates of the Orchard day nursery, Ravenscroft said she had no regrets about joining a union, and urged others in the sector to do the same. “If (other workers) know that they are able to join a union and they are able to fight for their rights, then we’ve done something good for this country,” she said. “We’ve got a legacy now.”

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