Way back in April, as the country went into a ‘national lockdown’, the world was just beginning to comprehend the potential impact this new ‘coronavirus pandemic’ could have on the world, both physically and economically. Little did we know that by the end of 2020, that would not be the only lockdown we had experienced this year and that the way we live and work had changed almost beyond recognition – and possibly forever.

Organisations across all sectors of industry were forced to drastically and swiftly adapt their business models, strategies and processes to enable them to overcome the hurdles this pandemic had, without much notice, put in their way. The aim? To be able to survive the economic impact of 2020 and to continue operating in what would become ‘the new normal’, while at the same time giving customers the same (and ideally better) service than pre-COVID.

For a company like Parenta, getting in early with the right support to customers facing a new raft of business constraints was vital. Unsettling words like ‘furlough’, ‘shielding’, ‘self-isolation’ and of course ‘lockdown’ were unheard of in a business environment pre-COVID; and although it’s fair to say the early years industry was not in a particularly strong financial position before the pandemic, it was (like many other sectors) in a much worse place during and post the first lengthy lockdown, as income streams dried up and some businesses were forced to close their doors.

Parenta CEO Allan Presland says: “The team at Parenta has always had customer service at the heart of everything it does, so finding efficient ways of supporting its learners, its learners’ employers and its software customers came naturally to the organisation. When lockdown hit, some early-years settings remained open, some closed, many learners were on furlough and some settings didn’t know if they would survive. The team was able to think on its feet and be adaptable to all needs.

“One of the first things that the customer service and communications teams addressed was providing ways to help our customers communicate with their customers (early years childcare providers). The majority of these settings were closed, although some needed to remain open to offer childcare for key workers. Adapting the nursery management software and helping customers make adjustments to a system that had never been necessary before was of paramount importance. Features such as marking children or the whole setting as isolating, or logging parents as key workers were new features that were created and communicated to customers swiftly and without fuss. Crucially, Parenta’s software already had in place good parent communication features - one of the most important factors in early years childcare - so childcare providers were able to log in remotely and email important messages, download reports and share indoor activities to keep the vital lines of communication open when face-to-face conversations weren’t possible.”

Fast response

Within a very short space of time, the team put together additional nursery management software and EYFS tracker help files, videos and even live webinars - and took customers on a step-by-step guide to help them facilitate these new adaptations and extra parent communications that they hadn’t had to do before now. The response was fantastic: the testimonials that followed really proved how much customers valued and appreciated the extra help in these unprecedented times.

Parenta’s childcare website team also needed to think on their feet and design ‘Covid Closure’ notices for customers to let the parents of the children in their care know whether they were open or not; and critically, what health and safety measures had been put in place to protect those children that still needed to be cared for. Vital advice about handwashing, social distancing and staying at home was communicated to all customers within the first few days.

“The business had to communicate this well to our audience to help them with these utterly confusing and frightening times,” says Allan. “Without doubt, our customers were given an “above and beyond” service whilst itself adapting to moving all operations online and working from home. But more than that, the organisation reached out and ‘wrapped its arms around the industry’ (metaphorically speaking) – helping not just our customers, but the sector as a whole.”

Frequent emailed advice and guidance in the form of ‘newscasts’ (covering the main COVID-related stories), a COVID hub on the website (including government guidance) and topical advice pieces e.g. How to Discuss Coronavirus with the Children In Your Care, Dealing with Bereavement, Lockdown Activities etc. were disseminated to Parenta’s 43,000 subscribers. This was in addition to the monthly online magazine which has contributions from many industry experts, all written to help early years professionals promote the health, happiness and wellbeing of the children in their care.

With video calling suddenly becoming part of what would be the new normal, the communications team realised that an effective way to reach their mass audience was to hold webinars: interactive Q&A sessions open to all those who work in childcare to help them navigate their way through such extraordinary times. “Our first webinar, “the new F word” was attended by hundreds who were as confused about furlough, redundancy etc. as everybody else,” says Allan, “but with the help of industry experts and national trade organisations, in particular NDNA, it was able to at least start helping early years settings make sense of what was happening. The first two or three webinars were so well attended that it was decided to keep them going and now they are held monthly, covering topics such as going paperless, helping with recruitment guidance and how to help settings market themselves on a budget.”

Apprentice support

But what about Parenta’s 2,500 apprentices? Many of them were furloughed without notice and not physically in the workplace where their training takes place. How were they to carry on with their course when their settings were shut? So many of them were due to sit their GCSEs in the spring – which is an essential part of completing their qualification, but the world of exams was thrown into disarray. Learners were understandably worried and confused about their future… how would they be able to continue with their work-based apprenticeship if they were not at work, and then after lockdown, if they had been furloughed?

“The training team at Parenta moved pretty much everything from paper to online within a very short time – to virtual and telephone meetings as well as online support – but knew that they needed the ‘buy-in’ from the learners themselves to be able to make this new way of working work,” explains Allan. “The organisation prides itself on investing in its people and new Internal Quality Assurers were put in post - promoting existing assessors within the company. That’s quite an achievement in the middle of a pandemic. This was to ensure that the high standard of quality that the team deliver was not compromised with the new way of working.

“In the initial stages, the training delivery team wasn’t sure how engaged the learners would be. The way they needed to connect with them was different now – no more going into their settings where they work to conduct teaching or observation sessions, but virtual ‘face to face’ online and on the phone – in their own homes. That’s quite a change from what they were used to. Not all learners are tech savvy – so solutions were needed to find ways of what works best for them, and of course everybody is different and learns in different ways.

“It became clear early on that being able to retain contact with their tutor/assessor using OneFile, the online e-portfolio system was of huge benefit,” adds Allan. “All in all, the learners really enjoyed their remote learning and were engaged throughout – they still are! What the remote learning has done, is that it has shifted the onus on to the learners to take more responsibility for their own learning, and also working at a pace that best suits them, whilst still receiving all the support they needed from their assessors and tutors.

“They tell us that they feel more in control of their learning as they are connected with OneFile and they can have more virtual ‘face to face’ teaching and learning sessions with their assessors without losing the “human touch”.

“We also know that those who were able to return to the workplace were very happy to be back!”

Virtual teaching

Parenta promises to unconditionally support all its learners through their learning journey from start to finish – but even more so now having developed a robust virtual teaching and learning programme, regular telephone support and additional functional skills tuition, where needed. Even though early years settings re-opened in September, the virtual way of teaching and assessing remains in place, and no tutors attend any settings – this is to help stop the spread of the virus.

Those apprentices who have additional educational needs receive further expert advice, guidance and tuition from their tutor; with extra resources supplied; and, in certain cases, added time to complete exams. “Something that has become evident over the past nine months is that the learners who have additional educational needs have benefitted greatly by the extra support given,” says Allan. “Parenta has invested in specialist skills tutors, specifically to help learners with their English and maths functional skills. This has resulted in an increase of learners with SEND passing their functional skills this year. The feedback has been incredible. Maths is a huge sticking point for many and this additional support has been (in the words of more than one of the learners) “an absolute life saver”.

“Pastoral care is something that can be overlooked, but now more than ever is so important. Many learners fall into the 16-18 year old bracket and for so many of them, this childcare job and apprenticeship is the first time they would have travelled somewhere on a day to day basis, other than to school. A dedicated learner support team keep in regular touch with all new apprentices and their nursery managers for the first few months; giving practical help and guidance to enable learners to make a positive start to their learning journey. This ‘pastoral care’ will also ensure the appropriate support mechanisms are in place for the apprentice throughout their whole course.” 

Parenta has certainly risen to the challenge; and the feedback from its customers - whether early years settings looking for software or training / recruitment solutions or apprentices, keen to learn and to gain their qualifications – is living testimony that if the leadership and guidance in an organisation is strong; then everyone in the company is inspired to pull together and work hard collectively and in collaboration; to get through such unusually hard times to deliver the same, if not better, service to its customers.

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