Coronavirus: Concern early years sector won't be able to cope with demand for places after lockdown

Katy Morton
Friday, March 26, 2021

With new findings revealing settings have been heavily reliant on the furlough scheme, there are fears nurseries would struggle with a sudden rise in demand for places.

The survey found that the least qualified early years staff were more likely to be furloughed between November and February
The survey found that the least qualified early years staff were more likely to be furloughed between November and February

According to the latest survey of private, voluntary and independent (PVI) providers by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), carried out last month, as many as four in 10 early years staff were furloughed this winter, as the demand for childcare places over lockdown dramatically dropped.

It found 38 per cent of staff were placed on full or part-time furlough between November 2020 and February  - almost four times as many employees than had been anticipated.

In a previous survey by the EPI and NDNA, the sector expected just 10 per cent of staff to be on the scheme over this period.

While the authors of the report acknowledge that the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has meant many settings could stay afloat, they have raised concern that as lockdown eases, settings may be unable to cope with a sudden rise in demand for childcare places, especially as they may need to replace staff that left during the pandemic. As such, they are calling on the Government to provide the sector with more support.

Impact of Covid-19 on staff

The survey, which covers almost 800 PVI settings across England, Scotland and Wales, representing over 15,000 staff, shows that staff with the lowest qualifications were most likely to be furloughed. They were also at greater risk of having their working hours reduced or being made redundant.

It is the third in a series of reports from the EPI and NDNA summarising the findings of four quarterly surveys of early education and childcare providers across Great Britain.

Reasons given by providers for utilising the Coronavirus Job Retention scheme included a lack of demand for childcare places and financial instability.

Other key findings on staffing include:

  • The number of employees overall in the workforce remained largely stabled between November and February, but there was significant variation between this. A total of 31 per cent of settings saw no change in the total number of staff they employed during the period, while 54 per cent had seen a rise and 15 per cent had seen a fall.
  • Just 5 per cent of the most qualified staff, those with a Level 6 qualification, were placed on full-time furlough, compared to 12 per cent of the least qualified and 10 per cent of those with Level 3 qualifications, who are officially counted in minimum staff: child ratios.


The findings also reveal the scale of nursery closures during the peak of the second wave of Covid-19.

According to survey responses, 72 per cent of settings in England and Wales were forced into full or partial closures over the last few months, with children’s overall attendance down by a quarter compared to the same time last year, prior to the pandemic.

As lockdown eases and demand for places increases again, the authors of the report have warned that without Government support, many settings could struggle to meet these pressures, including finding staff to replace those who left over the course of the pandemic.

They have also raised concern about the detrimental effect further volatility of the early years workforce could have on the quality of children’s education in the long-term, especially with many young children already having had their learning interrupted by lockdown closures.


Author of the report Josh Cottell, senior researcher at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said, ‘This research shows that the furlough scheme has been of crucial importance to the early years sector over the winter period.

‘While the Government’s wage scheme has temporarily kept many early years settings afloat, others may struggle to make it through this period of volatility. The concern now is that as society begins to open up again and families resume early years education, the sector may be unable to cope with a sudden rise in demand for places. 

‘The Government should provide additional support to the early years sector in the coming weeks and months, to help providers navigate this period of great uncertainty.’

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the NDNA, added, ‘It’s clear from the results of this research that this has been one of the most challenging period for nurseries in all three nations. Settings dealing with Covid-19 cases have had to close rooms or even whole nurseries as a result of positive cases, staff absences and low occupancy.

‘As cases start to fall it is vital that governments see the impact on the early years sector and provide financial support to providers and invest in the early years workforce who have been on the front line. With more children returning to settings, providers need to be able to recruit and retain qualified staff. 

‘Looking ahead to the challenges children will face, it is clear early years professionals will need access to training that helps them support children who have faced disruption and traumatic experiences. Any post-Covid educational recovery must support children's early years as they are the most important for a child's life chances.’ 

The Department for Education has been contacted for a response.

  • The full report is available to view here

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