Pandemic pushes ‘already fragile’ early years sector into crisis, new report finds

Kathy Oxtoby
Friday, February 25, 2022

The early years sector is facing a recruitment and retention crisis after years of underfunding, exacerbated by the pandemic, according to a new report published by the Childcare During Covid Project.

The pandemic has ‘pushed an already fragile Early Childhood Education and Care sector into crisis’, a new report on childcare during Covid-19 has found.

Intermittent closures or the retraction of provision of nurseries and other settings during the pandemic has caused disruption, financial hardship, and sometimes unsafe working conditions to staff working in the sector, and ‘extensive disruption’ to parents who depend on the sector, according to a report published by the Childcare During Covid Project.

The Essential but undervalued: early years care & education during COVID-19 report published this March said the sector will play ‘a key role in post Covid recovery, as it is foundational to the economy’, but that it is ‘facing a recruitment and retention crisis after years of underfunding, exacerbated by the pandemic’.

Morale was found to be ‘extremely low’ while lack of sick pay was ‘a serious occupational hazard’ during Covid-19.

Exploring how the pandemic has disrupted early years

The project aimed to explore how the pandemic has disrupted the early years education and childcare sector across England and Wales, to understand how providers and parents are managing these disruptions, and what this might mean for the safety and sustainability of Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC).

The Childcare During Covid Project is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) - as part of the UK Research & Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.  The research is supported by the Centre of Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC) at Leeds University Business School, and the University of Bristol.

The project involved nursery managers, childcare practitioners, childminders, nannies, and parents and grandparents, and data was generated through survey responses and interviews.

Key findings included:

  • The financial impacts on nurseries during COVID-19 may lead to the closure of some settings, but even for those that stay open there is evidence that it is negatively affecting the quality of provision.
  • Covid-19 has exacerbated many of the pre-existing challenges for nursery practitioners, and data collected reveal a workforce overworked, neglected in policy terms and increasingly likely to leave the profession.
  • Morale is extremely low and there has been a net loss of workers in the sector during the pandemic, leading to an intensified recruitment and retention crisis.
  • Lack of sick pay was a serious occupational hazard during Covid-19 and a major cause of lost income for workers across the sector.
  • For childminders Covid-19 resulted in reduced child numbers and hours of paid work, and loss of income
  • Despite some recovery by July 2021, most childminders now have a lower income than before the pandemic.
  • Income loss during Covid-19 is likely to have placed a substantial proportion of childminders below the poverty line – 32 per cent of childminders earned less than £10,000 in 2020/21.
  • Older childminders are more likely to be considering leaving the sector, taking with them substantial experience and knowledge.

Key findings about parents, children and families included:

  • Inequalities and disadvantage have been exacerbated through the pandemic: those families and children from more disadvantaged backgrounds who are most likely to benefit from ECEC support were least likely to be able to access or use formal ECEC.
  • COVID-19 has intensified long-term issues around affordability of ECEC for parents.
  • Working mothers were more likely than working fathers to say that access to childcare during the COVID-19 pandemic impacted on their ability to work ‘as usual’.
  • Parents, particularly mothers, reported substantial, sustained and ongoing negative impact on their wellbeing and mental health throughout the pandemic.
  • Parents reported substantial, sustained and ongoing negative impacts on their children’s development and wellbeing due to lockdowns, restrictions on households mixing and the pandemic more broadly.
  • ECEC will play an essential role in the catch-up and recovery for children under five.

The report’s recommendations included:

  • Bringing existing “Free Entitlement” (15/30 hours) in line with the actual cost of delivery by government, to be reviewed annually.
  • Expanding 30-hour provision to all three-year-olds, regardless of parents’ income or employment status, to enable labour market entry and changeable patterns of work and allow catch-up for children’s school-readiness (England).
  • Extending the 30 free hours a week offer in England to 52 weeks a year, to further address school readiness and to reflect the realities of parents’ working lives.
  • Creating a sustainable and progressive career paths in early years, with pay progression reflecting skills and experience, backed up by government sector-wide pay framework and supported by sufficient funding.
  • A recruitment campaign to attract staff into ECEC.
  • Investment in community-based provision - playgroups, and children’s centres - for those who do not use ECEC settings.

Workforce crisis ‘made a lot worse’

Commenting on the report findings Purnima Tanuku OBE, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) said: ‘We agree that the pandemic has pushed the early education sector into a deeper crisis. Our own research throughout the pandemic has shown how closures increased, especially in areas of deprivation. We have also seen a workforce crisis that existed before the pandemic, made a lot worse.

‘Evidence overwhelmingly shows how important early years are for a child’s development, learning and educational outcomes. Therefore, any recovery has to start with getting it right in early education and care.

‘Throughout the pandemic we have seen early years treated as an afterthought in terms of investment, practical support and financial help, so it is not surprising to see how this has impacted on children, families and nurseries.

‘The parental views are damning of Government support to families and early years settings.  Fewer than one in five parents thought the Government had done enough to support families in the second wave of the pandemic, and less than 17% agreed they had done enough for providers. This has to be a wake-up call for Ministers to listen and do more.

‘While over half of settings highlighting it was harder to recruit in the second wave of the pandemic we are seeing this situation becoming more desperate for providers. We need urgent action from the Government on ways to encourage more people into the sector to ensure nurseries can continue to offer the high quality childcare places that children deserve and families need.’

  • For more information:


Keep up to date with Early Years!

Sign up for our newsletter and keep up to date with Early Years education, process and events! We promise we won't spam you!