Nurseries forced to support families in poverty through coronavirus crisis, research shows

  • Nursery workers are providing families with food and support with basic needs as coronavirus lockdown impacts finances and wellbeing
  • 70 per cent of early education providers already supported families with benefit claims before the pandemic, research finds
  • Experts and providers call on government to increase support for nurseries and prevent families from falling through cracks in the welfare system

Toddler playing with blocks

Nursery staff are having to provide food and help families with benefit claims as the coronavirus pandemic impacts parents with young children, according to new research by the University of Sheffield and Early Education, an early years providers’ membership body.

Early Education surveyed 123 providers, mainly maintained nursery schools, in April 2020. It found that staff were concerned about the most vulnerable children and families, as many have stopped going to nursery or fallen out of touch with providers altogether, despite being eligible to keep attending. Nursery workers were also worried about families who have faced challenges such as loss of employment, financial difficulties or bereavement, and may not have been picked up as newly vulnerable by local authorities.

Providers reported that younger children not yet eligible for free school meals have not had the same safety net as older pupils, despite living in similar circumstances. With some parents struggling to access Universal Credit, waiting for payments to arrive, or having no recourse to public funds, nurseries have sought to provide meals from food banks or paid for by workers.

A previous survey of 92 providers was conducted by Early Education and the University of Sheffield in May 2019 in response to growing concerns from Early Education members about children and their families living in poverty. It found that 55 per cent of respondents were providing families with free food, clothing, washing facilities and other practical support and services. One in three providers reported paying for school meals from school budgets, while 31 per cent had staff qualified to dispense food bank vouchers.

Families were supported to make benefit claims by 70 per cent of nurseries, while 34 per cent gave practical support with housing and provided essential furniture such as beds for children. Some respondents highlighted that the reduction in local and nationally funded public services – including housing, the NHS and social services – was contributing to the effects of poverty.

Professor Cathy Nutbrown, Professor of Education at the University of Sheffield and President of Early Education, said: “The pandemic has highlighted the critical role that early years settings and services play in supporting families and their young children. But it also raises questions about why they are being asked to step in and stop families from falling through the cracks in the welfare state. We know this is happening throughout the education sector.

“Early years providers and schools must be properly resourced to continue supporting our most vulnerable children, and the government needs to take a stronger role in eradicating poverty, and addressing the reasons why so many families do not have the income they need to give their children the basics.”

The University of Sheffield's School of Education is home to a diverse and welcoming academic community, with students from around the world. Our forward-thinking teaching and influential research have earned us an international reputation for excellence.

Additional information

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


For further information please contact:

Sophie Armour
Media and PR Officer
0114 222 3687
07751 400 287