Majority of nursery staff consider quitting sector, survey shows

A crisis in the early years education workforce has been revealed by Leeds researchers in a report presented to the House of Commons today.

57% of nursery staff and 38% of childminders are considering quitting the sector in the next year, according to research by the University of Leeds and the Early Education and Childcare Coalition.

The study, ‘Retention and return: delivering the expansion of early years entitlement in England’, is being presented in the House of Commons as the Government prepares to roll out childcare expansion announced in the Spring Budget – aiming to offer 30 hours of ‘free childcare’ to eligible parents of nine-month-olds by 2025.

Estimates show that almost 50,000 extra workers would be needed in 2024 and again in 2025 to maintain the existing service and expand entitlement, but many providers are struggling to meet existing demand due to difficulties recruiting and retaining qualified staff.

The research combined a quantitative survey of almost 1,000 early years workers with interviews and focus groups involving 60 participants.

According to the report, just 17% of nursery managers said it was likely they would increase the number of places they offered, while 35% said they would limit the number of places they offered unless there was more government support to enable them to recruit and retain staff. Two-thirds (67%) of nurseries were already reporting average waiting times of almost six months for a place.

Lead author Professor Kate Hardy, from the Centre for Employment Relations, Innovation and Change (CERIC) at the University of Leeds, said:

Early years educators have a real thirst for training and continuing to improve their practice. But they desperately need paid time out from their working day, high quality training and their pay to rise in line with their growing capabilities. Investing in staff in the sector in this way is absolutely vital for stemming the tide of people exiting the sector and also for delivering the highest quality early education possible. 

The reasons given for wanting to leave the sector included:

  • Low pay rates
  • Lack of training opportunities (66% said funding or costs were a major barrier to accessing training)
  • Notable increase in the number of children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) without necessary specialist support
  • Recent changes to staff:child ratios.

Professor Jennifer Tomlinson from CERIC at the University of Leeds, who co-authored the research, said: 

Whether as a result of the pandemic or a longer-term trend, there appears to be a significant rising need in the sector amongst children with SEND. Educators want to be able to support these children –  this is why they do this job. They are deeply committed to giving children the best start in life possible. But they urgently need more staff around them, support from other agencies and investment in specialist training to do so. This must be an urgent priority for this government and needs urgent intervention.

The report sets out a number of recommendations that could help tackle the staffing crisis in the short term. These ’rescue’ measures include:

  • Increasing early years funding rates with the expectation that providers will use this to boost pay
  • Reestablishing a career development hub at the Department for Education
  • Providing more on-site training to reduce the need to spend time away from a setting
  • Ensuring access to funded, universal, high-quality SEND training
  • Developing a system for bank staff at Local Authority level which enables staff to take time out for training, with no negative implications for their setting
  • Ensuring the ‘Experts and Mentoring Scheme’ for childminders becomes a permanent programme
  • Restarting the Graduate-led Grant Scheme. Set a target to achieve a graduate led workforce by 2028.

This project is part of a wider stream of work putting Leeds at the forefront of early years education research. The new Early Years Employment Research Hub at Leeds University Business School will be launched in late November, bringing together policymakers, providers, professional associations and researchers to tackle workforce challenges in early years education.

Download the report.