Parents face childcare disruption as early years staffing shortages reach crisis point, new survey reveals

Parents of young children are facing repeated disruptions to their childcare services as a result of severe and growing staffing shortages in nurseries, pre-schools and some childminding settings across England, a new survey by leading early years membership organisation the Early Years Alliance has shown.

The online survey, which received 1,395 responses from early years providers, revealed that more than eight in 10 (84%) of settings are currently finding it difficult to recruit suitable staff (60% “very difficult”, 24% “quite difficult”). The survey also found that 62% of settings had employed staff who had left the early years sector completely over the previous six months, while more than a third (35%) of respondents said that they are actively considering leaving the sector themselves.

As a result of these recruitment and retention challenges, in the six months prior to the survey:

  • Half of respondents (49%) had been forced to limit the number of, or stop taking on, new children at their setting
     
  • A third (34%) had been forced to temporarily limit the number of children able to attend their setting on a particular day or days
     
  • A quarter (24%) had been forced to temporarily close a room or multiple rooms at their setting
     
  • One in five (21%) had been forced to reduce or restrict opening hours
     
  • One in six (17%) had been forced to temporarily close their entire setting

The survey also revealed that those working in the early years sector expect these challenges to continue for at least another year. It found: 

  • Nearly half of settings (46%) are pessimistic about the prospect of having sufficient staff in 12 months’ time
     
  • A third (34%) believe a lack of adequate staff is likely to result in temporary closure of one or more rooms in their setting during the next 12 months 
     
  • One in six (16%) believe staffing shortages are likely to force their setting to close permanently within a year

More than three-quarters (77%) of those considering leaving the sector cited ‘feeling undervalued by government’ as a reason for this. Responses suggest that those feelings were exacerbated by the lack of support and appreciation shown to the sector during the pandemic, and particularly when early years settings were asked to remain open while schools and colleges closed. Two-thirds (66%) of those considering leaving the sector stated that their experience of working in the early years during the pandemic had increased the likelihood of them doing so, while eight in 10 (82%) respondents with staff who have left the early years sector over the past six months said that the number of staff members leaving the sector is higher today than it was two years ago.

Inadequate pay was also identified as a common challenge for both recruitment and retention: 57% of those considering leaving the early years sector cited poor pay as a contributing factor, while 52% of respondents struggling with recruitment said an inability to meet the salary expectation of applicants was a contributing factor.

In response to staffing challenges, half of all settings (49%) said that they had been forced to use temporary staff over the previous six months to remain operational. Of those experiencing staffing shortages, six in 10 (61%) said that this had negatively impacted the quality of provision at their setting. 

The survey findings are summarised and analysed in a new report, entitled Breaking Point: The impact of recruitment and retention challenges on the early years sector in England.

In response to the survey responses, the Alliance are calling for the government to:

  1. Determine and publish a set of pay ambitions for the early years sector in England, setting out what it considers to be suitable salary ranges for each role level in the sector – and to ensure that early entitlement funding is set and maintained at an adequate level to enable early years settings to meet those salary expectations.
     
  2. Value and promote the early years sector as an education profession. This includes:
     

    • ensuring that the early years is included in all education announcements, debates and discussions, and that any support schemes or initiatives rolled out to the schools and further education sectors are also rolled out to the early years sector, where appropriate and relevant.
       
    • reviewing the use of language when discussing the sector, with an emphasis on early years provision as ‘early education’ and on the workforce as ‘early educators’.
       
    • In the medium-to-long term, running a high-profile campaign to encourage talented and dedicated professionals into the sector.
       
  3. Ensure there are clear and consistent career pathways into and through the sector, as well as funded training and CPD opportunities.

Commenting on the findings, Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance said:

“It is incredibly concerning, and yet sadly unsurprising, to hear not only how difficult early years settings are finding it to recruit suitable staff, but that so many dedicated, committed and experienced early educators are considering leaving the sector themselves.

“The figures in this report show we have nothing short of a sector-wide crisis on our hands. Parents are already experiencing temporary and permanent closures as a result of these challenges, and ultimately it is families and children who will suffer if this crisis continues.

“There is no single quick-fix on offer. Early education and care has the potential to be one of the most fulfilling and rewarding careers in any industry or sector, but for this to be a reality, there needs to be a complete overhaul of the way that government views, treats and ultimately funds early years providers in this country. 

“The early educators I speak to every day are passionate advocates for the work they do, but they are tired: tired of being overworked, tired of being underpaid and tired of being undervalued. We urge the government to act on the recommendations in our report and work with the sector to improve the status of early years as a profession and help build and maintain a dedicated, stable workforce for this vital sector, both now and in the future.”

CASE STUDIES:

Kerry Booty, Manager, Club 4 Kids, Herne Bay:

"We have been advertising for qualified staff and unqualified staff for over a year. I have to turn away families needing childcare on a weekly basis, not because we are full to capacity but because we are full to available staff ratios. I have a dedicated, committed team who have been with me for 4-15 years but they are exhausted trying to cover all the hours and I am scared of losing them. I’m already working 60 hours per week myself and I wonder if it will ever end." 

Lorraine Weaver-Ennis, Nursery Manager, Hinckley Road Nursery, Coventry: 

"We have had to reduce our register of children from 32 down to 24 because of staff shortages. We have struggled to recruit knowledgeable, qualified practitioners and whilst we have always been known for paying salaries above the minimum wage, we cannot compete with the salaries offered by the local authorities. 

"As a 98% funded private nursery, the poor funding is devastating to us and the only reason we have remained open is that the manager, who is a qualified Early Years Teacher, works full time in the nursery then attends to management duties at the end of the day when the children have gone home." 

Cheryl Knight, Nursery Principal, The Mulberry Bush Montessori Nursery, Colchester:  

“The main issue with recruiting and the retention of high quality, qualified early years staff is the pay. With the ever-increasing employment costs, minimum wage, pensions etc we have had over the past few years, we just cannot pay a reasonable or competitive wage for high quality, experienced, qualified practitioners, particularly for term-time-only nurseries who cannot make up the funding shortfall with additional hours and fees. 

“The minimum wage increases, while a good thing in general, have meant that the differentials in pay, particularly between degree-qualified, managerial and supervisory roles and newly qualified or non-skilled workers, is so minimal that no one wants the responsibility or the stress for so little reward.” 

Victoria Lewis, Childminder, London: 

"I have been actively recruiting for four months and haven't managed to successfully hire an assistant. I believe it's due to the salary I can afford to pay, and I can't compete with entry-level positions outside of the sector. 

"I've had to reduce my numbers as I can no longer maintain the required ratios and had to cease childcare for families with no notice. It's affected my working partnership with parents, and I view this as the beginning of the end of my 17-year long career in childcare, unless things change quickly." 

Clare Johnson, Manager, Ramsden Robins Pre-Nursery, Cumbria:

"The setting is experiencing both a recruitment and retention crisis. Recruitment has become increasingly difficult as there is a huge shortage of qualified practitioners and also a shortage of candidates for an apprenticeship. Meanwhile, over the last 18 months we have had the highest turnover of staff the nursery has seen in 20 years. 

“Staff are unfortunately leaving the sector and no longer seem to be passionate and committed to early years – they are leaving to go to other jobs and some are not even working their notice periods, which causes permanent stress for the remaining staff trying to manage ratios." 

Carol Lewis, Manager, North Cheshire Jewish Nursery, Cheadle:

“We are struggling to retain and recruit staff, as due to funding we are not able to pay what the job deserves. Funding is going up by less than the inflation rate and the minimum wage is increasing by 6.6%. I cannot see how we can manage this long-term.” 

EDITOR NOTES

  • The survey was conducted online from 21 October to 5 November 2021, and received 1,395 responses.

  • The full report, Breaking Point: The impact of recruitment and retention challenges on the early years sector in England, is available hereFull survey findings are available from page 32 of the report.