Can the GCSE U-turn solve recruitment difficulties?


CEEDA are independent research experts who are currently running the About Early Years (AEY) research programme with support from the Alliance and other sector partners. Here Dr Jo Verrill, CEEDA's Managing Director, writes for the Alliance blog on how the government's recent U-turn on GCSE requirements is impacting on early years recruitment, as well as looking at expected likely trends for the future of the sector.  


In summer 2017 there were an estimated 24,600 vacant posts in voluntary and private nurseries and pre-schools, with 45% recruiting staff and 84% finding it tough. Will the reinstatement of functional skills as acceptable equivalents to GCSE maths and English be enough to turn the tide on recruitment difficulties?

The impact of GCSE requirements

The removal of functional skills as alternatives to GCSE English and maths for the Level 3 Early Years Educator (EYE) in 2014 saw level 3 awards drop from a high of 20,820 in quarter three of 2012 to 12,325 in quarter three of 2016. Following reversal of this decision in March 2017, numbers are starting to rise, but recovery will take time.

A detailed look at the evidence base from Ceeda’s independent About Early Years (AEY) research programme shows that the recruitment problem is multi-faceted and will not be resolved by the GCSE U turn alone.

Graduate recruitment

At graduate level, enrolments on Early Years Teacher courses continue to fall from 2,327 in the 2013/2014 academic year to just 595 students in 2017/2018. This decline is unlikely to halt, following the Department for Education’s (DfE) decision to drop its workforce strategy plans to grow the early years graduate workforce in poorer areas and allow those with Early Years Teacher Status or Early Years Professional Status to lead nursery classes in maintained settings.  

Workforce diversity  

The stereotyped perception of childcare as a ‘job for girls’ has long been a major barrier to recruitment in the sector, wasting much needed talent and the opportunity to create a diverse environment in which children can experience gender equality from the earliest age. The summer 2017 AEY survey showed signs of growth in the male workforce from 2% last captured by the DfE in 20131 to 5% of the sector’s workforce. This is a positive trend upon which to build.

An increasingly competitive job market

Childcare providers must compete for staff in an increasingly tight labour market. Record employment levels of 75.6% in April to June 20182 are fuelling wage growth, with earnings increasing by 2.7% over the same period.

The spring 2018 AEY survey found average pay rates of £8.49 for early years practitioners, whilst official statistics3 show jobs such as bar work and cleaning pay just 2 pence less per hour. Sales and customer service occupations earn almost £1 more per hour at an average of £9.41. Nursery managers earned an average of £13.43 per hour in spring 2018 whist comparable roles in other sectors attract average earnings of £21.74 per hour.

These figures show that the need to raise the status of early years as a positive career choice, with competitive pay and clear career paths has never been more pressing.

Funding shortfalls

Whilst sector costs are rising, funding rates are fixed to 2020. The spring AEY survey measured day nursery and pre-school delivery costs and compared them with funding rates, revealing an estimated funding shortfall of £616.5 million in 2018/19. Childminder losses are not included in this figure.

This snapshot shows that whilst the reinstatement of functional skills has removed a significant barrier to recruitment, real progress will require a significant shift in sector status and rewards. Until funding levels better reflect the sector’s contribution and cost-base, early years is likely to remain in a weak position as the labour market heats up.

Get involved

About Early Years is an independent sector research programme delivered by Ceeda.  Over 2,400 early years settings have joined the research panel to date, to contribute to surveys and enjoy the benefits of timely sector analysis. Register today and take part in our current workforce survey to receive a FREE copy of our annual sector report, on general sale at £75. The report covers all the need-to-know figures on sector fees, delivery costs, salary rates, occupancy and much more.


Further information

Register to join the panel

Purchase CEEDA's annual sector report and download free bulletins

Find out about Alliance publication Recruiting Early Years Staff

Read our blog on staff wellbeing, Happy staff, happy setting 



  1. Department for Education [DfE] (2014). Childcare and Early Years Providers Survey 2013. TNS B28MRB Report JN 117328. September 2014.
  2. Office for National Statistics [ONS] (2018). UK Labour market: August 2018.
  3. Office for National Statistics [ONS] (2018). EARN06: Gross weekly earnings by occupation. August 14, 2018.