‘Unstable’ workforce risks negative impact on pre-school education – report

An “increasingly unstable” early years workforce could affect the quality of education and childcare provision for under-fives, a report has warned.

Not enough new childminders, nursery and early years staff are replacing those leaving the sector amid low pay, a high workload and lack of career development, research suggests.

High turnover of early years staff can affect children’s outcomes, especially in more disadvantaged areas, the Social Mobility Commission (SMC) warns.

The research suggests around one in eight (13%) childcare workers are paid under £5 an hour.

In England, average hourly pay in the sector is £7.42, which is lower than the average pay for female workers (£11.37), according to the analysis.

Childcare professionals also work longer hours than people in comparable occupations, the report suggests.

More than one in 10 (11%) full-time early years workers reported working more than 42 hours per week, compared to 3% of retail workers.

The research, carried out for the SMC by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), found that around 37% of early years workers leave their employers within two years.

Lydia Pryor, pre-school leader in Aldborough, Norfolk, said her deputy recently handed in her notice for a job that pays more.

She said: “I had nothing that could entice her to stay. She’s had enough of just making do and worrying about money when her car breaks down.”

Interview participants also described long hours and “inadequate” working conditions as causes of exhaustion and low morale, feeding a desire to leave the sector for less-demanding work.

Quality early years provision is “harder to achieve” when the workforce is unstable, according to the SMC report.

It says: “By the time children are five, those from disadvantaged families are already significantly behind their wealthier peers in a variety of development measures. Key to reducing this gap is high-quality early years (EY) provision, delivered by a qualified and skilled workforce.

“However, in recent years, there have been signs that the early years workforce is increasingly unstable, with too few new entrants to replace those who are leaving the sector.”

The SMC is calling for urgent action to be taken to improve the stability of provision, especially in light of Covid-19 when early years staff will become even more vital for child development and yet instability is likely to “worsen”.

The commission says the Government should introduce a comprehensive career strategy for the early years workforce – including a clear plan for attracting older workers into the profession further on in their careers.

Steven Cooper, interim co-chair of the SMC, said: “The early years workforce is vital in helping to narrow the development gaps between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and privileged ones.

“We must do everything we can to ensure that childminders and nursery workers are valued more by ensuring we pay them a decent wage, give them a proper career structure and ensure their workload is reasonable.”

Dr Sara Bonetti, report author and director of early years at the EPI, said: “This research highlights the multiple barriers that early years workers face on a daily basis, with low pay, lack of career options and negative perceptions of their profession holding them back.

“The pandemic now threatens to exacerbate many of these problems. We must do far more to support workers, otherwise we risk compromising the quality of provision and widening the disadvantage gap.”

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance (EYA), warned that all too often the early years sector is “still seen as the poor relation of schools”.

He said: “Years of inadequate Government investment into the early years has resulted in unacceptably low salaries across the sector, with many practitioners regularly working long hours for little or no additional pay. Is it any surprise, then, that more and more are opting to leave and seek employment opportunities elsewhere?”

Responding to the report, shadow minister for children and early years Tulip Siddiq said: “Years of underfunding has left childcare professionals working long hours for very low pay. This is driving talented staff out of the sector and letting down the young children whose life chances are shaped by vital early education.

“Labour has been calling for targeted support to save the thousands of nurseries and childminding businesses that are threatened with closure due to Covid-19. But we cannot go back to undervaluing the childcare workforce after this crisis – we must invest in them for the sake of the next generation.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said £20 million has been invested in improving the training and development available for early years staff.

She said: “Nurseries, pre-schools and childminders are a vital support network for families, and will play an integral role in this country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

“That’s why they have received significant financial support over the past months and will benefit from a planned £3.6 billion funding in 2020-21 to local authorities for free early education and childcare places.”