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The Impact of GCSE English and maths requirements on recruitment and retention in the early years sector

Chrissy Meleady, Chair of the Early Years Trailblazer Group considers the findings of a recent survey of nursery employers on their experiences of the new GCSE English and maths requirements for newly qualified staff to be counted in the EYFS level 3 ratio.

At the Nursery World Business Summit in November 2015 a straw poll of nursery managers in the room indicated that most had experienced difficulties in recruiting to level 3 and level 2 vacant posts. A further show of hands found that most attributed these recent difficulties to the impact of the regulatory changes that require practitioners who hold an Early Years Educator (EYE) qualification to also hold GCSEs in maths and English at grade C or above, if they are to be counted in the level 3 ratios.

This led the Early Years Trailblazer Group, which has the remit to develop the new Apprenticeship framework for early years, to undertake a national survey to see if the experiences of those at the summit were representative of the wider sector across England.

656 responses were received, representing between 3-4% of all registered providers in the country, and the picture painted by respondents is a challenging one. 90% of employers who have tried to recruit to level 3 vacancies this year have found it harder to find suitably qualified candidates. This has led to vacancies remaining unfilled for considerable periods of time, with 62% reporting their positions are unfilled for between 1 to 6 months. So the new regulation is considered by respondents to be having a significant impact on direct level 3 recruitment, but the survey also identified wider implications for employers.

When asked about the reasons for level 2 qualified staff leaving their positions, 88% of respondents indicated this was because the person did not believe he/she was able, or he/she was not prepared to achieve the necessary GCSEs in English and Maths to progress into higher level posts. As one respondent reported:

‘(I have) Level 2 practitioners who don't have GCSE grades to progress. They are unlikely to gain grades although they are fantastic practitioners who already work to Level 3 standards’

This issue of training the ‘next generation’ of level 3 staff was demonstrated starkly when 89% indicated they felt the GCSE requirements have made it harder to recruit candidates whom they feel will successfully complete the Apprenticeship framework. One respondent indicated:

‘Normally all my level 2 CCYPW (Certificate for the Children and Young People’s Workforce) staff upskill to level 3. This year only 3 have upskilled out of 47.’

This longer term impact is very concerning. Currently more than 80% of the workforce is qualified to at least level 3. However employers indicated that 58% of the level 3 staff who leave their employment do so to leave the sector completely because of the salary levels. This turnover, coupled with the perceived lack of new, suitably qualified level 2 people entering employment to take their places, means the sector is at risk of a real recruitment crisis in the not too distant future.

Understandably these issues of recruitment and retention are having an impact on pay levels. 63% of employers indicated they have had to pay more than would normally have been expected to recruit to their level 3 vacancies. This naturally has an upward pressure on other salary levels in the setting with 47% reporting they have had to increase managerial salaries in order to maintain differentials.

Inevitably, in a sector where 75% plus of costs is spent on staff wages, these increases in salary have a direct impact on the fees charged to parents. 62% of respondents indicated they had raised their fee levels to cover increased staff costs. Equally concerning is the finding that a significant minority (48%) have reduced their enrolment capacity or turned children away from the nursery because of staff shortages.

Arguably these are the most concerning findings of the survey. Government legislation to increase parents’ entitlement to free childcare from 15 to 30 hours for their 3 and 4 year old children demands a substantial increase in capacity across the sector. However the survey suggests that capacity is actually decreasing and is coupled with an increase in the direct cost of provision leading to a rise in fees. This is the challenge facing government and the sector. The Trailblazer Group has shared its findings with the Department for Education and is working with them to consider how to construct a qualifications framework that reflects the professionalism and demands of the role whilst recognising the financial challenges faced by employers and the sector. As one respondent to the survey neatly summarised the position:

‘I agree with ensuring that the sector is well qualified and over time I would love the aspiration to be for staff to hold GCSE Maths and English, but short term we need a plan to address the recruitment challenges particularly in light of the increasing need for staff against other sectors prepared to offer higher wages e.g. Lidl’