Early years workforce in England 'underpaid, overworked and undervalued'

By agency reporter
August 17, 2020

Low pay, a high workload and a lack of career development for early years workers, risk having a serious impact on the provision of care and education services for the under-fives, says the Social Mobility Commission in its report, The stability of the early years workforce.

The report reveals that as many as one in eight of the early years workforce is paid under £5.00 an hour. The average wage is only £7.42 an hour, less than the minimum wage and much lower than for the average female workforce (£11.37). The research finds that staff turnover is high, at 15 per cent, mainly due to low pay, a lack of training and career structure and excessive overtime.

Childcare professionals work longer hours than people in comparable occupations: 11 per cent of full-time early years workers reported working more than 42 hours per week, compared to three per cent of retail workers and six per cent of female workers in general. There are few training opportunities once people enter the workforce. Only 17 per cent of early years workers receive job-related training. While a high proportion of workers are passionate about what they do, 37 per cent leave their employer within two years.

There are signs that the workforce – which includes childminders, nursery assistants and early years teachers – is becoming increasingly unstable with too few new entrants replacing those leaving the sector.

High turnover can affect both the quality of service and children’s outcomes, and a stable workforce is even more important in disadvantaged communities. By the time children are aged five, those from disadvantaged families are already significantly behind their wealthier peers in a variety of developmental measures.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has caused considerable disruption to childcare providers since lockdown started in mid-March, generating financial instability for many workers. As parents start returning to the workplace, the early years workforce will become even more vital for child development and cannot be overlooked. There is now a real risk that persistent disruption and lack of support for workers could affect the quality of early years provision.

The 280,000 strong early years workforce – mainly young and female – provide education and care to children from birth to the age of five. They may be self-employed, such as childminders, or work in a formal nursery. Nurseries may be part of a school or children’s centre or be independent of either. But most are run by organisations in the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) sectors.

The research, carried out for the Commission by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), and based on analysis and qualitative work, found that the main barriers to a stable workforce are:

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

Steven Cooper, Interim co-chair of the Social Mobility Commission said: "The early years workforce is vital in helping to narrow the development gaps between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those from more privileged backgrounds.

"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."

The Commission proposes a comprehensive career strategy for the early years workforce including attracting older workers into the profession. It also calls on the government to match the operational costs of providing childcare to take account of increases in inflation and the national minimum wage.

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 the total population.
  • 13 per cent of the workforce earn less than £5.00 an hour.
  • Many childcare workers take on second jobs to make ends meet.
  • 11 per cent of full time early years staff work more than 42 hours per week, compared with three per cent of retail workers and six 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.
  • Workers at private day care nurseries said their duties involved heavy cleaning, including washing windows and mopping floors.
  • Stability 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 to 37 per cent in the Midlands and 40 per cent in the south of England.
  • Employers say they lack the funds to provide training for their workforce. A 2019 survey found only eight per cent of early years providers planned to spend more money on training and 55 per cent planned to spend less.

Dr Sara Bonetti, report author and Director of Early Years at the Education Policy Institute 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 disadvantaged gap.

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."

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, commented: "We warmly welcome the Social Mobility Commission's call for greater support for the early years sector. 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."

* Read the report here

* Social Mobility Commission https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/social-mobility-commission

* Early Years Alliance https://www.eyalliance.org.uk/


Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.