Last reviewed 13 September 2021

According to widespread media coverage, research findings and early years umbrella groups, the workforce is in crisis. Rebecca Fisk investigates some challenges within the early years workforce and highlights resources to support a better understanding of issues in recruitment and retention.

In 2020 the Social Mobility Commission carried out research into “why the early years workforce is so unstable, why recruitment is so difficult and many leave soon after they join”. They found that over 95% of the workforce are women and 40% are younger than 30, there are often excessive workloads, extremely low pay and not enough training or development, which can lead to a breakdown in relationships between management and staff. This is clearly a significant challenge across the early years sector, not only for businesses but for children as this leads to high staff turnover and ‘broken’ relationships in some settings. To add to the challenge, there is a huge variety of different provision from childminders to maintained nurseries, regional differences in levels of pay and funding, and a ‘fragmented system’ in which our youngest children are educated and cared for, making it hard for there to be a comprehensive national early years workforce strategy.

However, the early years workforce is full of dedicated and committed staff who are passionate about caring for and educating children. For many mothers this job role fits in with their own childcare arrangements as well. There is a strong evidence base worldwide which demonstrates that quality early years education and care provision can have a critical role in a child’s outcomes throughout their life.

Early years policy

In England, some of the major early years policy decisions affecting the early years sector and workforce considerations have been identified in a report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) in January 2020.

These include:

  • Graduate Leader fund from 2007-2011 provided financial incentives to early years providers to recruit graduates

  • the minimum GCSE grade requirement for workers (2014-2017) meant key staff members were required to have at least grade C in English and Maths

  • the early years entitlement expansion for two-year-olds (2014-present) which provided more disadvantaged families with 15 hours of funded early education

  • the early years entitlement expansion for three-and four-year olds (2017 – present) which provided working families with 30 hours of funded early years education’.

Policy comes and goes, leaving the early years sector buffeted by changing political and economic agendas but without a long-term strategy to enable it to thrive.

Staff qualifications, recruitment pool and professional development

The early years workforce is not always viewed as a ‘profession’ in the same way, for example, as nursing or teaching. However, those that value the early years sector know that the workforce contributes significantly to the development and education of the youngest children at the most crucial time of their brain development, which helps lay the foundations for future learning and life chances.

There is no clear national career pathway for the early years sector, adding to the sense that development as professionals is somehow not required. Continuing professional development can be expensive beyond that provided by the ever-dwindling local authority early years teams.

The Graduate Leader fund was well-resourced and resulted in an increase of graduates by 76% in the early years sector as providers were encouraged to support staff to become graduates with this dedicated budget. However, with this budget no longer available, it remains a constant challenge to recruit degree-level staff. The Level 3 ‘Early Years Educator’ status has not produced a consistently high number of employees with this qualification, meaning that providers see an erratic number of people available in the pool from which to recruit from. The National Day Nursery Association (NDNA) workforce survey (2018/19) found that “turnover is high with most staff leaving the sector qualified at level 3, for better paid jobs in retail”. The number of unqualified staff has risen from 10% to 26% since 2017. (Sutton Trust 2020 cited by Early Years Workforce Commission 2021). There is some evidence that where staff work with the youngest children, in baby rooms, for example, staff appear to have the lowest levels of qualifications within the setting, yet this is the most crucial time for brain development and, it could be argued, needs the highest qualified staff (Early Years Workforce Commission 2021).

The Government outlines the Department for Education statutory requirements within the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) regarding qualifications and child ratios which must be adhered to. Closer scrutiny shows the vast number of routes into, for example, Level 2 qualifications via diplomas for the Early Years Practitioner, or BTEC in Children’s Play and Learning Development or via the apprenticeship scheme. Whilst different routes might suit different people, this brings a lack of consistency across the sector. There is an early years progression map which has been produced by CACHE with guidance regarding different career pathways, and is supported by the Department for Education.

For many employees entering childcare, there is only limited continuous professional development beyond the statutory requirements such as child protection, first aid and food hygiene. This perpetuates a low level of qualification compared to other workforce groups and with other strains on providers’ budgets, such as maternity and pension costs, this is not always a priority. Improving the quality of the workforce is a challenge nationally. Owners and managers of provision want to invest in upskilling their staff but find this difficult when funding in real terms has decreased.

By investing in really good professional development and paying staff the best salaries possible through good sustainable business management, providers are more likely to retain staff, retain quality and therefore be more active in the marketplace with parents wanting a place at the provision. The Early years inspection handbook (Ofsted) is clear that inspectors will gather evidence of the effectiveness of staff supervision, performance management, training and continuing professional development.

Safer recruitment

Inspectors will also check that you have followed the statutory requirements for recruiting safely and carried out the necessary checks on staff. Safer recruitment is essential for all those working or volunteering with children and young people. Top tip guidance can be found here.

Staff pay and costs in the early years sector and turnover

Recruiting to the early years sector is a challenge. Turnover is at 24 % (NDNA 2018/19). Research carried out by the Education Policy Institute (2019) found that “a large proportion of childcare workers are struggling financially”. This research found that staff are low paid across the early years sector with pay being approximately “40% less than the average female worker” and that 44% of early years workers are claiming state benefits or tax credits, which means that they are in a position of high financial insecurity. Staff are reported to be leaving the sector to take up roles in retail, which is better paid. Low incomes mean some staff seek additional employment elsewhere, holding down more then one job to make ends meet. “In England, the average wage across the early years workforce is just £7.42 an hour, this compares to £12.57 for the total population”. (Social Mobility Commission 2021 cited by Early Years Workforce Commission 2021).

Current fundings rates from central government are not sufficient to ensure provision is sustainable with the “extreme challenges many providers are facing”. (Early Years Workforce Commission 2021). These challenges result in one in six early years workers leaving their job within a year (Education Policy Institute 2019). This in turn means there is little consistency in the staff team where this happens, so it is understandable that owners and managers of settings cannot keep sending different staff on the same training over and over to replace the knowledge of those that have left.

Age of staff

The Education Policy Institute (2019) found that in 2018 around 90,000 childcare workers were aged 55 years old or over which means that the next ten years will see staff reach retirement age if they retire at 67 years old when the state pension begins. The 2018/19 NDNA workforce survey found that there is “a picture of a younger, less highly qualified, less experienced workforce emerging”. This means that on the ground the historical knowledge and experience is being lost from older staff and with a younger female workforce may reduce their hours or leave the profession following maternity breaks. The knowledge and experience of staff that have been in the profession for some time is often lost to this higher turnover of younger staff, and sometimes this will inevitably affect the quality of provision over time. Quality of provision in turn impacts on the sustainability of provision, with parents choosing better quality provision where they can.

European Union (EU) nationals

In 2018, more than 37,000 EU nationals (5.1% of all workers) were working in childcare in England (EPI 2019) which is a similar proportion to the National Health Service (NHS) at 5.6 % (63,000 staff). Recent Brexit legislation may be having an impact on the numbers of qualified staff, with some returning to their countries of origin in the European Union. The full impact of this may not be known for some time as it has occurred at the same time as the Covid-19 pandemic.

Covid-19 pandemic

It is not yet known what the full effect of the pandemic on the early years education and childcare workforce will be. There is much in the news about financial hardship in families caused by the pandemic, a temporary increase in universal credit, and the impact of parents changing working styles, which could impact on the sustainability of early years settings. With a current shortage of workers across many jobs such as hospitality, care for the elderly, and delivery driving, there may be an exodus from childcare into other professions which have the potential to pay more and be flexible around childcare arrangements.

The Early Years Workforce Commission (2021) has the goals of “promoting wider recognition of the importance of the early years sector and its staff reflecting the intrinsic role the sector plays in supporting the economy and the national workforce”.

The pandemic has gone some way to recognising the importance of the early years sector as it propped up essential key workers, especially those in the NHS enabling them to save the lives of thousands of people. This has “accelerated the need for urgent investment” to achieve a high quality and sustainable workforce in the early years sector.

Gender

Compared to other female dominated professions such as hairdressing, beauty and primary teaching, the early years childcare sector has an extremely low number of men in the workforce. Whilst the numbers of males in the workforce have increased slowly, numbers remain low at between 3 and 7%. The campaign group Men in the Early Years (MITEY) have produced a resource for employers on how to recruit men into early years roles and “double [the] pool of talent”.

Staff wellbeing

With such challenges for owners and managers of early years provision it might help to consider how you will support you own and your employees’ mental health and wellbeing. There are a series of downloadable printable resources available from the Anna Freud Centre, a specialist wellbeing organisation sponsored by the Department for Education to produce some guides for the sector. Resources support managers to plan meetings on mental health and wellbeing, to write a policy, to help the team reflect and put ideas into action. The resources aim to support increased productivity from staff, less staff absence from work, improved job satisfaction which can support retention of staff.

Their workforce survey showed that business pressures, Ofsted inspections and workload were significant issues affecting staff morale and wellbeing. In addition, concerns over their pay, work conditions and meeting performance management targets also caused staff considerable stress or unhappiness at work. The research showed that more information about mental health, better awareness and support from colleagues would significantly help to improving mental health in the workplace. Being open, building trust to get to know each other and making time for each other are all key aspects of better staff relationships and mental health in the workplace. Managers have a key role in creating a culture of well-being that can go some way to counteracting the national challenges the sector finds itself in.

Summary

There are many challenges stacked against the early years workforce in current times. There are also many organisations campaigning for a better way forward, carrying out research to provide an evidence base to policy makers. Long- term strategic intervention and investment from the Government is being called for across funding, skills, and sustainability to support this essential sector of the economy.

Leaders in early years provisions can be open about the challenges so staff better understand them, can upskill themselves in good business management, and can do much to support the quality of staff relationships and professional development.

Through using national and local resources to keep informed and a variety of widely available resources you can enhance staff wellbeing and deliver quality to children and families. Your passion for early years will shine through to children, families, and staff if you look after your own wellbeing in these exceptionally challenging times too.

Further information