David & Anna Wright

Owners, Paint Pots Nurseries, Southampton

What was a typical work day like before the corona crisis
As owners of a family-run group of 10 early years settings, our role is to set strategy, to ensure that our values and ethos are lived out, that the quality of interactions, learning and care and the needs of all children, families and our teams are being met every day. As well as ensuring the business functions effectively. It is a cliché to say there is no such thing as a typical day but we have a wide remit and people-focused businesses throw up new demands each day so it is not easy to predict what we will deal with on any one day. We always make time to meet our team members, to play with children and to engage with our managers on a regular basis.

Within the Early Years sector, we work with a global network of contacts to try and improve the provision of care and education for all children across the world and to advocate for their rights. We are Trustees for and active supporters of a charity operating in Kenya that rescues abandoned babies, we are involved with the leadership of the World Forum on Early Years education, we run our own charity – Families First Southampton, employing an outreach worker who helps meet the needs of local families in need, particularly dads and kinship carers. We support other local early years providers, we are on the leadership group of the South East region Ofsted Big Conversation.

Other roles include: writing – books, blogs, articles, publications; TV and radio broadcasting; emergency foster carers; training – early years, parenting and relationships; conference speaking; broadcasting; social media engagement; toilet unblocking; advocating for men in early years; being grandparents.

When the outbreak started, what was your initial reaction?
I think we felt overwhelmed by the relentless pressure to assess the situation, to make decisions based on scant and changing information, to plan and to provide reassurance and leadership to everyone around us. It seemed as though everyone looked to us to sort everything – immediately! Obviously an impossibility. We were actually exhausted and quite ill after the first few weeks.

What impact did this have on your day job and how did you adapt?
We definitely moved from strategic to survival mode. All our priorities changed. We made the decision to prioritise based on three timescales –

  1. immediate: what do we have to decide now?
  2. Short term: what needs to be sorted to enable us to continue operating over the next week?
  3. Medium term: what can we actually plan for based on what we know today (but which is likely to change at any point)?

There has been and continues to be no possibility of long term planning.

At the start of the outbreak, this put us under almost intolerable stress, working very long hours trying to make sense of what the impact would be for everyone affected within our community – the children, their families and our teams.

Over time, things have calmed but we are still very busy covering different roles and responding to all sorts of unplanned events and changes in circumstance.

What are the big challenges you have faced / are facing as the pandemic continues?
Number one challenge – missing being with our 18 month old granddaughter, Ophelia!

Our focus has been and continues to be – how we can support as many children of Keyworkers and those children we know to be vulnerable, as possible, in our settings and those children locked away at home, whilst providing for the needs of our team in terms of personal safety, finances and emotional and mental well-being. And importantly, working to ensure we are still here and able to carry on after this is over.

We have found communication is really important, keeping in regular touch with our team, our managers, our families and with the children. This all takes effort, organising a quiz, bingo session or Easter challenge for the team, means taking extra time working out how to get it all to work on Zoom, sorting out questions, online bingo cards (a great success!) and actually running the events. All very worthwhile and enjoyable but still needing additional input from ourselves.

The biggest challenge is the continuing uncertainty which makes planning very difficult. I would say the other challenge is the general level of heightened anxiety that generates some surprising responses. We have learned to be very cautious in how we write and say things in case they are misinterpreted. It certainly helps to be honest, clear and transparent as much as possible.

How have you kept going through the tough times?
We have each other for professional and personal support, which helps. Our own personal history has been marked by some very tough times in the past. We lost two of our own children many years ago, Anna nearly died from ectopic pregnancy on two occasions and now lives with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. We believe that we have been shaped by these events, not defined by them. What is the worst thing that could happen to a parent? Well, losing two of your children as babies has to be up there. Once that has happened, there’s not much else that worries you. We don’t tend to sweat the small stuff any more. Maybe it’s given us a sense of perspective. It helps to focus on a day at a time through this pandemic.

What acts of kindness have you seen or shown that have made you smile recently?
In our experience, the Coronavirus pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in people! Whilst I have been saddened by some of the relentless unkindness on social media, personally we have been moved to tears and overwhelmed by a continuous flow of generosity, words of encouragement, support and gratitude from so many people to us. Members of our team have sent us flower, sweets, chocolates, cards and loads of supportive messages. Parents have volunteered to continue paying us even though their children are not attending, some as much as 100% of their fees. The local Early Years community have been coming together to support each other on regular Zoom calls. We have also received support from colleagues across the country and the world. Someone phoned up out of the blue a couple of weeks back to ask which of our nurseries are still open and how many team members we have in working so he could pay for a pizza delivery for them. All of our teams have had deliveries of flowers, chocolates, cards and food. We have had the opportunity to donate ourselves – toys, books and a laptop to a local family for their children to use. We have passed on donations of toiletries from our parents to families in need and we continue to make regular donations to our local food bank. Every day is an opportunity for new acts of kindness!

What has this crisis taught you – both professionally and on a personal level?
The crisis has confirmed our belief in what is important in life – love and relationships. Nothing else really matters. It has also highlighted the importance of kindness, compassion and connection. These things are true both professionally and personally. Love and relationship are fundamental to Early Years teaching.

The other lessons we have learned are to find our own peace and pass it on to others; to maintain an active sense of gratitude and to see things from others point of view – everyone is trying to come to terms with this situation in their own way and with their own challenges, fears, anxieties and level of emotional literacy and self-regulation capabilities It helps to bear this in mind.

How are you trying to stay happy and healthy?
Trying to find boundaries between work and other activities – enjoying the garden – it’s never looked so good! Connection with others online – quizzes, catch ups and fun events. Watching mindless box sets on TV, reading, crafts (Anna), crosswords (David). We are eating more healthily but challenged on the exercise front due to Anna’s health issues.