Northern Ireland perspective
The future of the Children’s Activity sector in Northern Ireland
I would like to start by saying how much I admire our sector in working together and behind the scenes, attempting to restart our businesses in the mist of this pandemic. The financial impact has been far reaching and will be long lasting, and we cannot be sustainable any longer surviving on furloughing our staff, accessing the self-employed income support grants and accessing bounce back loans etc. Mortgage breaks have helped and small local grant schemes and Invest NI grants have all kept us alert and focused on our plans to re-start. The story is not a fairy-tale and the reality is we have lost businesses, hardworking colleagues and ambitious providers in the mist of trying to survive during this unprecedented and very challenging time.
We have amazing entrepreneurs and businesses with people who are not afraid to take risks, they don’t complain or become disheartened by rules and regulation but instead they work round the complications and make headways that are beyond our expectations. They just press ahead with drive and determination, even when their friends are saying you’re not allowed!
In Northern Ireland the sector has been resilient and creative with a range of online classes for paying audiences, corporate sponsored online classes and children’s entertainment services for parties and celebrations. We have witnessed ‘make your own slime’, crafts and cookery kits being produced and sold to summer schemes and childcare providers. We have seen online classes for drama and art, as well as sport and music lessons resuming online instead of ceasing during lock-down. It has certainly been challenging but the sector has adapted and innovated to maintain a brand presence and keep connected and engaged with their customers and clients.
The ground roots of the children’s activity sector in Northern Ireland is very dependent on the re-opening of schools, church groups, community groups and venues. When we can once again hire halls and venues to run our classes from, I do believe families, groups and schools will return to us and show us their support. We are a nation of churches with toddler groups, community centres with playgroups, leisure centres with indoor and outdoor pitches and party rooms who will all be looking forward to welcoming back service providers to help bring joy, happiness and life into communities once more.
It will not be possible to return to business as usual yet, but…
I honestly feel positive as we move forward through the easing of lockdown, with a new and evolving situation and landscape in Northern Ireland meaning we can now plan and put measures in place to enable the new normal to commence. Let me explain at the time of writing (5th Aug 20) the situation is as follows;
1. Schools are re-openings at the end of Aug 2020 in Northern Ireland and they are working toward a plan for a five-day week. If schools can do this then it is very likely that we will be able to return to our businesses, albeit it with some adjustments and modifications such as playground outdoor classes instead of indoor classrooms and assembly halls.
2. The NI Department of Education has announced that funding for the Extended Schools’ Programmes will continue in the new school year. This programme relies on external providers to run sports, drama, dance, art classes as well as family support services and community engagement with schools’ projects.
3. Politics in Northern Ireland is often fractured, however during the pandemic we have witnessed more joined up thinking and a collective approach on the important themes of education, families, mental health, benefits and welfare. Let’s think outside the box and find alternative ways of providing our activities and services, as these are closely aligned to and help to support these themes.
4. Community centres will need a viable and sustainable income stream when they re-open. Did you always want the Thursday morning slot at 10am? Now is the time to get in touch and negotiate!
5. Until this week restaurants were not allowed to put tables outside on the footpath, but the Government guidance changed and now we see restaurant tables everywhere! What does this mean for us? I believe we will see further relaxations of the guidance as we return to business. Our public parks are Council managed and currently the permitted activities are very limited which means we cannot run our services at the moment. However, I am hopeful that the situation will change and Parks could be our new venue of choice!
6. Parent and toddler groups, uniformed groups and gatherings are anxious and keen to return and are already working on their own Covid safe re-starts. With time they will invite us to return, we just need to be patient and find ways to ‘Covid-proof’ our services so that they are both safe and tailored to meet the needs of these individual organisations and groups.
7. Track and trace procedures in Northern Ireland are activated for each positive infection and we just entered 2 weeks of no deaths from the virus. A new StopCOVID NI app has just been launched to help further manage and control transmission of the virus. These developments increase the likelihood of further relaxation of the lock down, and measures will be speeded up to allow for leisure pursuits and freedoms.
8. Funding announcements are becoming a regular feature on our news reports as the NI Executive steps up their efforts and initiatives to help support businesses to recover from the impact of the pandemic. If not directly, then indirectly there will be opportunities for us to provide children’s entertainment and services in the rebuilding of communities, schools, towns and cities.
9. Playgrounds have reopened w
hich is a very clear signal from the Executive that play should be enabled; this adds further weight to re-starting our own businesses working with children and families.
As the lockdown eases here and we are faced with an array of re-start initiatives that are relevant for us and require our attention. Schools and groups will be looking to us to reassure them that we are capable of providing a safe environment for our activities, that take into account Covid safety measures and guidelines. Private bookings for parties and events will seek clarity from us on how we plan to run our services in a way that reduces children having close contact with others. Sports recreation, arts, dance and drama classes will re-start as soon as our schools go back. So, get ready and plan your own re-start timeline, put the changes in place and get accustomed to writing risk assessments and alternative ways of working. Good luck everyone, it’s going to be different but if anyone can we can make this work!