Underpaid and undervalued – why the sector is losing so many staff

Childcare practitioners make their voices heard through a new survey which highlights the extent of the workplace challenges they are currently facing.

Pay for early years practitioners should be matched with primary teachers
Pay for early years practitioners should be matched with primary teachers

Poor pay, increasing workload and low status are continuing to drive early years staff out of the profession.

This is the verdict of a new report carried out by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), produced in collaboration with the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

While demand for childcare in England remains high, recruiting qualified staff is a huge problem. In the last four years the number of nursery workers qualified to Level 3 has plummeted from 83 per cent  of the workforce to currently just over half (according to the National Day Nurseries 2018/2019 Workforce Survey).

Almost half of highly qualified staff in England are aged over 40, and with 21 per cent aged over 50 and approaching retirement, suggesting that the future workforce could be even less qualified than today.

What needs to be done
The report findings were based on detailed interviews with nursery staff, managers and childminders, who outlined what first attracted them to working with young children, and what factors led them to consider leaving the sector.

NatCen’s director for Children and Families, Ellen Broomé said: ‘Too often, the views of the people who work in the sector, and what they think would help deliver high quality early years education, have not been heard. This study paves the way for the people who work with our youngest children to be part of the conversation.’

To address the profession’s undervalued status, the report suggests a need for better communication about the critical role staff play in addressing inequalities.

It recommends that pay must be improved, and should match that of primary teachers.

There is also a call for the Government to consider a review of current training qualifications, to ensure staff are equipped with key skills for the job. To boost progression and professionalisation, the report suggests an equivalency between Early Years Teaching Status and Qualified Teaching Status, alongside ring-fencing of funds for training and professional development.

Why staff leave
Whatever path they followed into the profession, the challenges that forced staff to consider leaving the early years were the same across the workforce:

  • Poor pay progression and low salaries, which were felt to be incompatible with increasing workload and responsibilities
  • The job’s emotional and physical demands, made worse by increasing paperwork and demands from parents and employers
  • Difficulties supporting a family on current salaries, which stopped many from seeing working in the early years as a long-term career option
  • The lack of social recognition afforded to early years education, which staff felt society wrongly viewed as being ‘easy’.

    Deborah Lawson, general secretary of Voice, said: ‘NatCen’s study found that many staff follow a career in the sector because, as dedicated professionals, they know the difference that good early years education can make and is something we have highlighted from our own previous surveys. 

‘As previous research has shown, many skilled early years professionals could earn more stacking supermarket shelves – but stay in the profession because it is their vocation.

‘Such pay levels are not commensurate with the qualifications and experience  required for early years professionals, especially for those at graduate level.

‘I am pleased that this report reveals the workload pressures on practitioners. There has, rightly, been a focus recently on teachers’ workload, but workload issues in the early years sector have not been reported to the same extent.’

 ‘We know from our own members that many practitioners do not feel that they have a good work-life balance and regularly feel stressed about work, with some even considering leaving the early years sector due to stress and mental health difficulties, adding to the current recruitment and retention crisis.

‘We also know from members that the ‘goodwill’ of staff to work unpaid overtime is often relied on.  That goodwill – with dedicated staff suffering long hours and low pay in silence while they put the needs of the children in their care ahead of their own welfare – is being stretched  with the expansion of early years education.

‘As NatCen’s report highlights, more must be done to improve the status and career progression of the early years workforce.’

‘That should include revising Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS) and seeking equivalency with Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).

‘The Government must implement an early years and childcare workforce strategy that is supported by a clear career pathway and national pay structure – and it must do it soon.’

At NDNA, Stella Ziolkowski, director of Quality and Training, added: ‘The main reason for low pay and a lack of progression is that providers are hamstrung by their biggest customer, the Government, which does not pay sufficiently for nurseries to deliver funded places. This leaves them with no choice but to pay minimum wages in many cases, offer only mandatory training and limited pay increases for those who become better qualified.’

Read the report, Ongoing workforce challenges in the early years sector; poor pay, increasing workload and low status here

The study forms strand 3 of a broader research project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation and conducted in collaboration with the Education Policy Institute (EPI). The most recent EPI work strand looked at the impact of major government policies affecting the sector over the past 15 years and can be found here.



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