A sober outlook
The mood across the Early Years sector seems to be suggesting that recruiting and retaining staff is one of our biggest challenges. It was certainly the biggest topic of conversation at the Childcare Expo where I chaired a seminar on “The Future of Early Years” and the Nursery World Business Summit.
Attracting quality staff is difficult but keeping them is shockingly challenging. No one seems to have a real grasp of the issue. Our Childcare Minister, Will Quince doled out the usual platitudes last week and, at an International Women in Business Event with the Shadow Treasury Team, the audience was talking about the same staffing crisis, in particular not being able to access childcare which was limiting so many women-led businesses from thriving.
What’s behind the problem?
One of the biggest issues is understanding the problem. We are not sure what is actually causing this situation. Whilst it’s not a new problem, it is much, much worse than I have ever known in all my long career.
So, let’s reflect on the descent of the recruitment disaster. In 2016, we faced the “attraction” issue where our then Childcare Minister, Liz Truss insisted that everyone had to have the GCSE grades A-C in Maths and English in order to enter the profession. This was done despite all the warnings from the sector that it would only work if it was carefully planned and introduced carefully. Good sense was ignored and it took two more Childcare Ministers (Sam Gyimah and Caroline Dinenage) to change the legislation so we could at least manage the policy whilst Liz continued her meteoric rise through the Cabinet.
No doubt, Brexit compounded this shortage as many of the European staff returned to their home countries and the visa requirement (introduced by the Home Office) set the wage bar too high for us to be able to employ European staff. As ever, our complaints were not heard, and the problem got deeper.
Problem compounded by Covid-19
Then in March 2020, COVID-19 arrived and with it the economic crisis began to deepen. We are now trying to navigate an increased cost of living, rising inflation and the continued housing crisis which means too many people cannot live within a decent commute of where they work. In the meantime, the sector has had an increase in funding which translates to between 2p to 17p per child. Yes, I kid you not!
Just as an aide memoire to this, do you remember the lead feature and investigation by Nursery World magazine in September 2019 called ‘Childcare Practitioners Living in poverty‘? It reported that 14% of those working in the Early Years sector were living in relative poverty (defined as households earning an income of less than 60% of the UK average, which was £17,640 a year at the time of the investigation). In the same year, the Education Policy Institute also found that 45% of those working in the sector claimed state benefits or tax credits. The following year in August 2020, a report by the Social Mobility Commission found that the average hourly wage across the Early Years’ workforce in England (which is 96% female) was £7.42 per hour, compared to an average pay across the female workforce of £11.37.
Unsurprisingly, while raising anxiety on so many levels, COVID-19 also provided a calming interlude by introducing the furlough scheme which made it possible for many staff to balance their reduced salaries against the cost of commuting and the additional costs of working. It also leveraged a change in attitude about lifestyle and a willingness to work full-time. I am bewildered as to how people can afford to pay their rent if they only want to work as bank staff or limited hours a week. Is everyone living at home or does housing benefit meet the shortfall?
Breaking Point report
In December 2021, the Early Years Alliance published its Breaking Point report which surveyed just under 1,400 people in the sector. This is what they found.
84% of respondents were finding it difficult to recruit suitable new Early Years staff, with 60% finding it ‘very difficult’
The reasons mostly commonly cited by these respondents were:
* A lack of applicants for roles (87%)
* Applicants lacking full and relevant Early Years qualifications (70%)
* An inability to meet the salary demands of applicants (52%)
62% of respondents said they were aware of staff who had left their setting in the past six months and had left the Early Years sector completely.
49% of respondents said they had to use bank or agency staff over the previous six months.
21% of respondents had to reduce or otherwise restrict opening hours as a result of lack of adequate staff over the previous six months.
49% of respondents had to limit or stop taking on new children due to a lack of sufficient staff over the previous six months.
61% of respondents who had experienced staffing shortages over the previous six months said that it had a negative impact on quality.
46% of respondents felt pessimistic about having sufficient staff in 12 months’ time.
34% of respondents thought that it’s likely that a lack of adequate staff will result in their setting or rooms in their setting being forced to close temporarily over the next 12 months.
16% of respondents thought that it’s likely that a lack of adequate staff will result in their setting being forced to close permanently over the next 12 months.
35% of respondents are actively considering leaving the Early Years sector, with 3% having already confirmed that they are leaving and 1% having already left. The most commonly cited reasons were: feeling undervalued by the Government (77%), job-related stress (72%) and poor pay (57%).
66% of those actively considering leaving the sector said that their experience of working in the sector during the pandemic had increased the likelihood of them leaving.
Things getting worse
Since then, things have got steadily worse and no one seems to have a plan. Why haven’t we got an emergency working group, chaired by our invisible Minister? In a crisis like this, he did a 10-minute video link at the Nursery Works Business Summit. Yes, a video link!
If I was a cynic, I might say there is a willingness to let the flawed market model resolve the situation. But what will that mean? Will Private Equity and Venture Capital continue to leverage growth in affluent areas where parents can afford a price hike to meet the rising costs? How will they find the staff needed to deliver their new services?
Will poor children bear the brunt? There is and will continue to be a decrease in nurseries in poor and disadvantaged neighbourhoods where there is little investment and parents unable to pay fees. Will there be a return to the main argument about reducing staff to child ratios?
The clash of the policies
The clash of the two policies: childcare versus Early Years education and care for all children is now in stark contrast. We need proper considered answers to the key questions so we can really respond to the issue. Questions such as how many staff do we need, what are the real problems, how many parents cannot work because they cannot access childcare, how many settings are likely to close, what is the situation for childminders?
Childcare is part of the national infrastructure but it’s also part of society’s responsibility for our youngest citizens. I recently wrote about the Danish model which provides proper subsidy and parent fees to run a high status, properly supported service to every child.
Let’s now join together to put this crisis at the heart of a national conversation. We need parents and business leaders engaged. Children haven’t time to wait while we faff about unsure about what to do next. Getting our heads around the problem together gives us a chance.
Let me know what you think. How can we fix this? Get in touch.