Low pay forces early years workers to quit jobs they love

Early years workers should be paid the same as primary teachers, according to new research, which says that thousands of professionals in the sector are being driven out by low pay and lack of recognition.

Tens of thousands of early years workers are leaving the sector because of low pay, increasing workload and lack of recognition
Tens of thousands of early years workers are leaving the sector because of low pay, increasing workload and lack of recognition

Poor salaries and increasing workload are likely to have contributed to a loss of thousands of early years workers in the past year, according to a report out today.

Joint research by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) with the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has found that while many staff initially pursued a career in the sector because of a love for early years education, many are now leaving due to low pay, lack of recognition, and the emotional and physical demands of the job.

The report recommends that early years pay should be matched with that of primary teachers.

The study reveals the challenges for recruiting, retaining and developing staff in the sector, through interviews with nursery staff, managers and childminders, uncovering what first attracted people to working with young children, and what factors led them to consider leaving the sector. 

While demand for childcare in England remains high, the sector is struggling to recruit and retain staff.

Whether early years workers started a career in childcare out of a commitment to the sector or more pragmatic reasons, the challenges that are forcing staff out are the same throughout the workforce, the research found. They are:

  • Poor pay progression and low salaries, felt to be incompatible with increasing workload and responsibilities
  • Physical and emotional demands of the job, exacerbated by increasing paperwork and demands from employers and parents
  • Inability to support a family on current salaries, stopping many from viewing early years as a long-term career
  • Lack of social recognition for early years education, which is perceived as ‘an easy’ option

The report also calls 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.

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.’

Dr Sara Bonetti, director of Early Years at the Education Policy Institute, collaborator on the report, said, ‘This new research provides further evidence of a low-paid and undervalued early years workforce. If the Government is serious about levelling up outcomes in education, it needs to look closely at how it supports those working with children at this crucial stage in their lives.’

Eleanor Ireland, education programme head at the Nuffield Foundation, said, ‘This research shows that early years professionals are struggling with poor pay, limited progression opportunities, very demanding work and a lack of social recognition for the importance of their role. If we want to improve the quality of early years education for very young children, it is vital that the government supports the workforce in retaining high quality staff and improves how we value the early years sector.’


Liz Bayram, chief executive at the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), said, ‘Low pay barriers and unsustainable funding levels means many providers are being put in a position where they are having to make staff cuts, reducing training opportunities or leave a career they are passionate about in order to make ends meet for their own families. This is not a decision that those responsible for looking after the next generation should be facing.

‘A primarily female workforce is taking on more responsibility to support children but continue to be undervalued. A long-term workforce development and funding strategy that pays professionals a salary proportionate to the important job they do is not only vital for a skilled workforce but will help more families enjoy the high-quality early education.’

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said, ‘It’s clear that much more must be done to improve the recruitment and retention of early years practitioners.

‘The first five years of a child’s life are absolutely vital to their long-term development, and yet this isn’t remotely reflected in the pay or recognition that the professionals who support this pivotal stage of early life receive.

‘Every day we hear of more and more talented, passionate practitioners choosing to leave the sector for roles with less stress and more pay. How can we continue to provide the best possible care and education to young children if we are increasingly unable to attract and retain the high-quality workforce needed to do so?

‘For far too long, we've relied on the goodwill of early years practitioners to keep them in the sector, when what they need – and deserve –  is to be able to progress in their careers, to know that they are valued and respected, and crucially, to be paid a decent wage.

‘For this to be possible, the Government needs to commit to better investment into the early years, and to a comprehensive and meaningful long-term early years workforce strategy. This is simply not an issue that ministers can afford to drag their feet on.’

Stella Ziolkowski, NDNA’s director of quality and training, said, '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.

'A child’s early years are crucial and lay the foundations for their learning. How much evidence does the Government need in order to understand that they must invest the true cost of delivering quality early education and raise the professional status of its undervalued, underpaid but dedicated practitioners?'

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