Early years workforce: 'Forgotten key workers' driven out by low pay in increasingly volatile sector

Catherine Gaunt
Tuesday, August 4, 2020

One in 8 childcare workers is paid less than £5 an hour and many are forced to take on second jobs to make ends meet, a report commissioned by the Government’s Social Mobility Commission has found.

Low pay, long hours and lack of status are among the barriers to a stable early years workforce, the report finds
Low pay, long hours and lack of status are among the barriers to a stable early years workforce, the report finds

The research, carried out for the commission by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), highlights low pay, lack of career and training opportunities and negative perceptions of working in the sector as the key barriers to a stable workforce, all areas which are likely to be exacerbated as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘For many working in early years, the crisis has further destabilised an already precarious situation. When and how the sector will recover depends on a new understanding of its crucial work for society and a funding system that reflects this,’ the report says.

In recent years, The stability of the early years workforce in England says, there have been signs that the early years workforce is increasingly unstable, with too few new entrants to replace those who are leaving the sector. It examines key factors that appear to be associated with this instability in the early years workforce.

In their foreword to the report, Sandra Wallace and Steven Cooper, interim co-chairs of the commission, say that nursery workers and childminders are key to closing the development gap that often appears before the age of five between poorer children and their more affluent peers, but warn that the 280,000 people who work in early years are in danger of becoming 'forgotten key workers'.

They add, 'There are excellent workers employed in the sector, but to ensure a consistent high-quality early years workforce, it will take a monumental effort to change the perception of an entire sector. And it also does not happen overnight. But as we try to build back better and learn the lessons of the pandemic, there is no better time. We should not see this as too ambitious it matters too much.'

The commission proposes a comprehensive career strategy for the early years workforce, 'from apprentice to primary head', including attracting older workers into the profession.

It also calls for a workforce registry 'that would enable a sense of belonging and a community for meaningful professional development at each stage'.

In addition, the Government should match the operational costs of funded childcare places to take account of increases in inflation and the national minimum wage. 

The research findings are based on an analysis of quantitative data covering a large representative sample of workers in England, and 40 interviews with early years practitioners, setting managers and local policy-makers.

The early years practitioners interviewed struggled to meet their living costs and moved to other employers for even a small increase, or left the sector for other low-skilled work where wages were higher.

One manager quoted highlights the dilemma facing managers.

Lydia Pryor, pre-school leader in Aldborough, Norfolk, said, ‘My deputy recently handed in her notice because she found another job that pays more, and I had nothing that could entice her to stay. She’s had enough of just making do and worrying about money when her car breaks down.’

Employers said that they lack funding to provide training for their workforce. 

Interview participants described long hours, inadequate working conditions and considerable amounts of paperwork as causes of exhaustion and low morale, feeding a desire to leave the early years for less-demanding work.

Early years workers at private nurseries reported heavy cleaning duties as part of their job, including washing windows and mopping floors.

Key findings

  • In England the average wage across the early years workforce is £7.42 an hour. This compares to £11.37 for the female workforce and £12.57 for total population.
  • 13 per cent of the workforce earn less than £5 an hour
  • 11 per cent of full time early years staff work more than 42 hours per week (compared with 3 per cent of retail workers and 6 per cent of the female workforce).
  • One in six workers (15 per cent) leave their jobs within a year
  • The workforce is mainly young and female: 40 per cent are below 30 and 96 per cent are female

Stability of the workforce varies across regions: 31 per cent of early years workers in the north of England stay with their current employer for less than two years, compared with 37 per cent in the Midlands and 40 per cent in the south of England.

The report found the main barriers to a stable workforce are:

  • low income
  • insufficient training and career opportunities
  • low status and reputation
  • a negative culture and climate within the organisation
  • high workload and responsibilities
  • over-reliance on female practitioners

‘The early years workforce is vital in helping to narrow the development gaps between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and privileged ones,’ said Steven Cooper, interim co-chair of the commission.

‘We must do everything we can to ensure that childminders and nursery workers are valued more by ensuring we pay them a decent wage, give them a proper career structure and ensure their workload is reasonable. The commission will be pressing the Government and employers to take urgent steps to improve the stability of childcare provision in these critical years.’

Dr Sara Bonetti, report author and director of early years at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said, ‘This research highlights the multiple barriers that early years workers face on a daily basis, with low pay, lack of career options and negative perceptions of their profession holding them back. The pandemic now threatens to exacerbate many of these problems. 

‘We must do far more to support workers, otherwise we risk compromising the quality of provision and widening the disadvantage gap.’


Sector organisations have welcomed the report's call for greater support for the sector.

Stella Ziolkowski, the National Day Nurseries Association director of quality and training, said, 'High quality early years education is crucial to give all children, especially the most disadvantaged, the best start in life. We can’t overemphasise the importance of a happy, recognised and rewarded workforce on outcomes for children. Practitioners in the sector are passionate about what they do and this motivation deserves reward.

'Nurseries would love to pay their staff the salaries they deserve. Funding rates must be based on realistic measures.

'We want to see real investment in the quality of early years provision so that childcare providers are able to properly reward staff, keep them in the sector and build them into the early years leaders of tomorrow.'

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said, 'Research shows that the first five years of a child's life are absolutely critical for their long-term learning and development - and yet, when it comes to education policy in this country, all too often the early years sector is still seen as the poor relation of schools.

‘Years of inadequate Government investment into the early years has resulted in unacceptably low salaries across the sector, with many practitioners regularly working long hours for little or no additional pay. Is it any surprise, then, that more and more are opting to leave and seek employment opportunities elsewhere?

‘With the huge challenges that the coronavirus pandemic has created for the childcare sector, it's clear that much more Government support is needed if providers are going to be able to not just stay afloat, but to continue to recruit and retain quality early years professionals who can deliver quality early years provision as well.

‘If the Government is truly serious about improving social mobility and children's life chances, there is no better place to start than the early years.’

Responding to the report, Liz Bayram, chief executive, said, ‘For far too long childcarers have had desperately low incomes, relying on in-work benefits to make ends meet, with little recognition for the incredible work they do. 

'The sector is crying out for a coherent workforce development strategy that supports and incentivises practitioners to continuously improve their skills, gain higher qualifications and progress their careers. 

'Childminder numbers are in freefall. Without immediate action to retain existing childminders and encourage new entrants, there will be a devastating loss of flexible, high quality childcare places - places that will be vital to support parents as they return to work. 

'The Covid-19 pandemic has cast a sharp light on the fragility of a sector that is critical for the future well-being and education of our youngest children as they seek to catch up from the time they have lost. We need a clear long term government strategy that includes desperately needed investment to give every child the chance to thrive.'

General secretary of the union Voice, Deborah Lawson, said, 'This latest in a long line of reports highlighting the workforce issues of the sector provides yet more evidence that an overhaul of the early years career pathways, to address the recruitment and retention issues is urgently required. Without it we are risking not only employment and career opportunities but also the quality of provision which is essential to reducing the attainment gap.'

Tulip Siddiq MP, Labour’s shadow minister for children and early years, said, ‘Years of underfunding has left childcare professionals working long hours for very low pay. This is driving talented staff out of the sector and letting down the young children whose life chances are shaped by vital early education.

‘Labour has been calling for targeted support to save the thousands of nurseries and childminding business that are threatened with closure due to Covid-19. But we cannot go back to undervaluing the childcare workforce after this crisis – we must invest in them for the sake of the next generation.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said, ‘We have invested £20 million in improving the training and development available for staff working in early years settings, particularly targeted at those working in disadvantaged areas, and we are supporting their career progression through better qualifications, more apprenticeship opportunities and routes to graduate level qualifications.

‘Nurseries, preschools and childminders are a vital support network for families, and will play an integral role in this country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. That’s why they have received significant financial support over the past months and will benefit from a planned £3.6 billion funding in 2020-21 to local authorities for free early education and childcare places.

'We continue to provide extra stability and reassurance to nurseries and childminders that remain open by “block-buying” childcare places for the rest of this year at the level we would have funded before coronavirus – regardless of how many children are attending.’

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