Early years workforce crisis could hinder government plans to expand ‘free childcare’

New research by the Early Education and Childcare Coalition and the University of Leeds has found that 57% of nursery staff and 38% of childminders are considering quitting the sector in the next year.

The study comes as the government prepares to roll out the first phase of what it calls the ‘biggest expansion of childcare in history’, which will offer 30 hours of ‘free childcare’ to eligible parents of nine month olds by 2025.

girl, portrait, black and white

Researchers found that even using conservative estimates, the number of childcare places in England would need to grow by 6% in order to meet the demand created by the government’s planned expansion.

However, many nursery settings say they are unlikely to offer the new entitlement because of an inability to recruit and retain suitably qualified staff. The recent changes to staff-child ratios were found to increase the likelihood of early years professionals wanting to leave the sector.

Just 17% of nursery managers said it was likely they would increase the number of places they offered, while 35% said they would limit the number of places they offered unless there was more government support to enable them to recruit and retain staff. Two-thirds of nurseries were already reporting average waiting times of almost six months for a place.

Sarah Ronan, director of the Early Education and Childcare Coalition, said: ‘Promising more free childcare without the infrastructure to deliver it is raising false hope among already struggling families.

‘If the government is to have any chance of delivering this expansion, it must listen to the people on the ground educating and caring for our children. Years of underfunding have left them underpaid, overworked and feeling disrespected.

‘It doesn’t matter if it’s more free hours from this government or wholesale reform from Labour, the fact is nothing will change for parents or children unless we have a well-paid and valued workforce.’

Pay in the sector is tied to the government’s ‘free hours’ funding model and with a large proportion of a setting’s income coming via this route, low funding rates lead to low rates of pay, particularly among childminders. The research found that 70% of nursery managers think it is time for a new funding model.

Abby Jitendra, principal policy adviser at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: ‘There is no quality childcare expansion without a new workforce strategy for the early years workforce. Government needs to value workers to attract them to the sector – this means development opportunities and ultimately, higher pay. We need to rethink how we fund providers, moving beyond funding a race to the bottom in quality to investing in driving up standards.’

The research found a notable increase in the number of children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) in early years settings, with 87% of nursery respondents and 63% of childminders reporting that they were working with or assessing more children with SEND, often without the necessary specialist support that the child needs.

The report sets out a number of recommendations that could help tackle the staffing crisis in the short term, alongside longer term reforms to improve sustainability. These short-term ‘rescue’ measures include:

  • Increasing early years funding rates with the expectation that providers will use this to boost pay
  • Reestablish a career development hub at the Department for Education
  • Provide more on-site training to reduce the need to spend time away from a setting
  • Ensure access to funded, universal, high-quality SEND training
  • Develop a system for bank staff at council level which enables staff to take time out for training, with no negative implications for their setting
  • Ensure the Experts and Mentoring Scheme for childminders becomes a permanent programme
  • Restart the Graduate-led Grant Scheme. Set a target to achieve a graduate led workforce by 2028

Image: Greyerbaby

More on this topic:

New online tool points parents towards personalised childcare support options

Government response published to parliamentary report on childcare sector


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