Vulnerable Nurseries Facing Huge Challenges

Nurseries across the UAE closed their doors to children one month ago. Early Learning Centres followed a week later. Since then, this vital structural support to our economy and education sector has been struggling to see what the future holds, and most importantly, whether it will still have a place in it.
Vulnerable Nurseries Facing Huge Challenges
By Jenny Mollon
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EDITORIAL: Nursery Managers reacted with dismay when compelled to close their doors to children last month. As time has progressed, that dismay has slowly descended into constant, painful anxiety.

To date, it remains unclear when Early Years settings will be allowed to open again. Many owners and managers are desperately hoping that the answer will be July, after the school term ends, but the picture is far from clear.

One month in, and many nursery owners and operators are struggling to see how they will survive. The gut, 'industry' assessment is that up to 90% of nurseries could close their doors for good in the coming months. Many nurseries are small, often standalone businesses, set up by passionate people that care about early years education, rather than entrepreneurs in search of an opportunity.

However, while businesses are often small, as an employer the sector is significant. An estimated 100,000 people are employed in the UAE Early Years industry.

The financial implications for nurseries are readily apparent. Since 2018, schools have been able to enrol children from as young as 2 years 8 months, making them direct competitors to nurseries, who typically cater to children from 3 months to 4 years old. This challenge alone has meant that most nurseries have been operating with far fewer children than previously, but with similarly heavy overheads for fixed costs such as rents, managers and mandatory staff such as nurses. All before the biggest cost: the teaching teams.

A welcome drive to further professionalise the sector from the Ministry of Education (MOE) has meant nurseries have needed to invest more in the qualifications, training and development of their staff in recent years. Welcome, yes, yet costly and challenging to sustain.

A third factor in the financial challenges facing nurseries in Dubai is that MOE licensed nurseries have long been compelled to offer parents monthly payment plans, a move that was designed to help working parents spread the cost of essential childcare. Helpful for parents, but an initiative that made building reserves of cash very challenging for nurseries. With the Covid-19 related nursery closures starting on the 1st March, many nurseries lost, overnight, a huge proportion of their projected income for Term 3.

Simply put, many of the cheques dated March 1st never arrived. However invoices and bills for salaries, rents and other overheads did.

Lisa Sherrington Boyd, Principal at Kangaroo Kids Nursery in Al Safa is concerned by more than just the financial challenges facing her much loved nursery.

“When I entered into a career in Education, I took an oath to put children at the heart of everything I do. I’m worried about the financial implications, of course, but I understand why this is needed and I 100% support the government in their fight to combat this virus.

"But alongside the financial issues, I’m concerned about the emotional impact this is having on our children and our families. My team work hard to form strong and loving bonds in our classrooms and it must be so confusing for young children not to be seeing these special people any more.

"Of course, not being able to physically go to work is a reality for almost all of us these days, but I know many parents are really desperately worried about how their childcare will function when the time comes to go back to the office. For the many families with two working parents, who will care for their children if their nursery has closed? And if many nurseries have closed…what then?

Lisa’s concerns reflect those of many Nursery Managers to whom we have spoken in recent days. Many have resigned themselves to closing their business. Many more are making staff redundant and wondering how to retain those that are left should the situation continue. Most are having conversations with their parent body that would have previously been unimaginable.

“We committed to refund Term 3 fees to our parents, as we know times are tough. Now, we have humbly requested them to either voluntarily keep it with us or pay us a small monthly retainer to be adjusted once we open again...Katrina Mankani, Managing Director, Jumeirah International Nurseries.

Shaun Robison, Govenor of IDEA Early Learning Center was forthright about how dire the current situation is for nurseries;

“The Early Years sector across the UAE is extremely fragile, far more fragile than schools. Without Term 3 revenue some nurseries will inevitably close, most will have to make significant cuts, and the sector will not be the same in any way shape or form come September 2020.

"The current Covid-19 crisis has meant that parents have either lost their jobs or they have taken significant pay cuts. This means that Term 3 fees are not guaranteed for schools, and for nurseries they are not assumed at all. Expatriate parents, of all nationalities are weighing up the decision to remain in the UAE because of liquidity issues. The new labour law announcements do not resolve the problem”.

Nurseries are small but impactful business for so many reasons. We now live in a global society where two working parents is the norm… a necessity and not a preference or luxury. Nurseries offer children safety, security, love and education while we perform our own roles for the economy.

At WhichSchoolAdvisor.com we believe that Early Years educators are the overlooked professionals in the education sector. We urge you not to overlook how devastating it will be to permanently lose the talented individuals we now have working in this country we call home.

If you can, please find a way to continue to support your nursery so that it will be able to, in turn, provide the support our families will need when 'normality' does return.

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