Staff facing ‘high financial insecurity’

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Early years workers are in a position of ‘high financial insecurity’, with more than 44 per cent claiming benefits and tax credits, according to a report.

  • Early years staff suffered a real-term pay loss of 5 per cent from 2013 to 2018
  • Practitioners are now earning a similar amount to hairdressers
  • More than two-fifths of staff are claiming benefits and tax credits

Early years workers are in a position of ‘high financial insecurity’, with more than 44 per cent claiming benefits and tax credits, according to a report.

Published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), it finds that despite a steady decline in staff in the sector on benefits and tax credits since 2013, the number claiming, as of last year, is much more than in competing occupations such as hairdressers and beauticians, as well as for the whole female working population.

The Early Years Workforce in England report, based on figures from the Labour Force Survey, also reveals that early years staff have suffered a real-terms pay loss of 5 per cent since 2013 (see graph below) – despite a 2.5 per cent average pay rise for the general female working population.

Change in real-terms gross hourly pay by occupation group, 2008-10 and 2013-18*


*2008-10 includes managers; 2013-18 does not include managers

Those with the greatest drop in wages are playworkers (11 per cent) and childminders (9 per cent), followed by teaching assistants and nursery nurses (0.5 per cent).

While teachers saw a greater drop in their pay between 2013 and 2018, on average they still earn more than early years staff.

According to the report, early years staff are now paid a similar wage per hour to hairdressers and beauticians, who have seen their pay increase.

The average pay for nursery nurses and assistants is £7.70 an hour. For childminders it is £8.10, for playworkers £7 and for teaching assistants £8.20.

The EPI says it has compared the sector to the hairdressing and beauty industry as there is often a tendency for young people to pursue either childcare, hairdressing or beauty therapy if they have low prior attainment.

Qualifications and recruitment

The report finds qualification levels have ‘marginally increased’, but at a very slow pace in the past few years. As of last year, 38 per cent of early years staff had a degree, 36 per cent held A-Levels and 24 per cent had GCSEs or lower qualifications.

It says the number of Level 3 staff has been ‘erratic’. In 2013, 66 per cent had the qualification; this rose to 73 per cent in 2016 and fell last year to 68 per cent.

The report claims not many workers are undertaking further training partly due to fewer opportunities provided by employers. It also recognises that for staff who upskill, there is no guarantee of career progression.

Staff demographics

The report raises concerns about the future workforce given the ‘ageing’ sector. It warns that a significant number are likely to exit the workforce in the next decade and there is little indication that sufficient numbers of younger workers will replace retiring older ones.

The report found:

  • Last year there were around 90,000 childcare workers aged 55 or above.
  • There has been an increase in childcare staff in their twenties, late fifties and in their sixties.
  • The increase in staff in their sixties could be because of the later retirement age.
  • The proportion of staff in the 35-54 age group has been decreasing.
  • Suggestions that the sector is drawing its workforce from women returning to work rather than from young school/college-leavers.

The report also highlights the number of EU nationals working in childcare in England. As of last year, there were more than 37,000 EU nationals in the sector.

It warns that Brexit could soon pose additional strain on the ability of the sector to recruit as inward and outward migration may be affected.

Looking at the diversity of the workforce, the report finds that while the number of men has increased, it remains very low at 7.4 per cent of the workforce, and the majority of them are childminders.

It says this is around half the proportion of male workers in other female-dominated occupations, such as hairdressing and beauty (13.7 per cent) and nursery and primary teaching (15.8 per cent).


Dr Sara Bonetti, associate director of early years at the EPI, said, ‘We found that the childcare workforce is poorly qualified and faces a number of recruitment problems – with many workers experiencing serious financial hardship.

‘While the Government has rightly recognised the importance of education in the early years, it must offer far more support to the three-quarters of a million workers in England who play an indispensable role in the care and development of our young children.

‘There is overwhelming evidence that high-quality childcare plays a vital role in the outcomes of a child’s life, with a skilled, qualified workforce absolutely central to delivering this.

‘This report should therefore concern parents who use childcare, and the Government, which regards high-quality early years education as crucial to social mobility.’

Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation – which funded the report – said, ‘This new research from the EPI shows that the incentives to stay in the childcare sector are low.

‘The research also shows early years staff are offered few opportunities to improve their qualifications, which is particularly worrying given both the importance of the quality of provision and concerns over recruitment in the sector.’

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘The findings of this report will sadly come as no surprise to anyone working in the sector.

‘EPI is right to highlight these worrying trends and to call on the Government to offer childcare practitioners more support, but it is disappointing that this report fails to explicitly identify the reason for its concerning findings: wholly inadequate Government funding.

‘Without Government action, the current trends are only likely to worsen in the years to come.

‘If the Government truly wants to support the sector, it must commit to investing what is needed to ensure that the hard-working professionals who make up the workforce are paid a fair wage for what is unquestionably a vital job.’

The National Day Nurseries Association’s director of quality and training, Stella Ziolkowski, said, ‘What we are seeing is the Department for Education only focusing on the volume, not quality, of early years provision, and as a result they are failing to put vital resources into the workforce. This lack of ambition to drive improvement is putting a glass ceiling on the aspirations of the workforce, with few or no incentives to progress and develop.

‘We know many people love working in childcare and this passion is being taken advantage of. We want to see the workforce properly recognised and rewarded, but with funding for early years going backwards we are seeing downward pressure on the workforce.

‘It cannot be right that financial pressures on the sector mean that a large proportion of childcare professionals have to rely on additional benefits to top up their incomes.

‘As this report warns, we risk increasing recruitment problems if these fundamental issues are not addressed as a priority. The Government urgently needs to get to grips with this growing crisis before it gets worse.’

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