Time for early years staff to shine in the spotlight

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

While Boris and his Cabinet are figuring ways to extricate us from the European Union, (not Europe that will remain a continent no matter what!) my team have been to Spain to recruit Spanish staff. Why on earth? Because the recruitment challenge shows no sign of easing up.

What are we facing? The turnover of staff remains at a minumum of 25 per cent, higher than national averages of between 15 per cent and 18 per cent. The number of qualified staff has plummeted from 83 per cent four years ago to 42 per cent. 

At LEYF our turnover sticks at about 18 per cent. This costs us up to £15,000 per candidate to recruit. The NDNA tell us the the sector has  shelled out £896m on recruitment costs last year. One would almost suspect a government plot to close us down and subsume our services into schools… Perhaps we need to remind them again that costs will be higher in schools!

Successive governments have failed to align manifesto funding promises with reality. I don't know what they expected to happen in our sector. The genie is imaginary, we can try and rub the lamp as often as we want but it won't produce what we need; a proper funded, well respected  service to our children for their families.

Nowadays, childcare is part of modern infrastructure. Like it or not we have a couple-based economy - 500,000 children attend 25,000 nurseries every day. Housing costs are eyewatering and in large cities familes are not living close enough to share out the childcare costs. This is also affecting staff who work in the sector. Even with a discount of 50 per cent for their own children some LEYF staff still cannot afford to bring their children to our nurseries because the travel costs wipe out the discount.

The government response to childcare as an infrastructure was to create the mythical "free childcare" offer. This has never been free or sufficient and is now even more challenging since those insufficient rates have been until 2020, leaving nurseries and childminders to shoulder the burden.

Nurseries in areas of poverty and deprivation where parents cannot afford to cover the shortfall in government funding rates, are among the least financially viable. Children with special educational needs and disabilities are also at risk reducing the need for specially qualified staff. Many providers now plan to cut corners. The CEEDA report found that what is happening in the sector is unhelpful to both either attract or retain staff. For example:

  • 50% of settings have reduced training.
  • 43% have cut back on children's resources.
  • 41% are lowering staff to child ratios.
  • 20% have reduced the mix of qualifications.
  • 16% are using more staff on zero rated contracts.
  • 19% are employing part time staff who are below the threshold for employer national insurance (19%) and auto enrolment contributions (17%).
  • 13% are employing younger staff who are below the minimum wage threshold.

So, is it surprising that reports from NDNA tell us early years staff are leaving to work in supermarkets as its better pay without the stress? Here are two quotes from the report which sums up the mood:

"In 15 years of operating we have never faced such tough recruitment challenges - staff at all levels are incredibly scarce so when we are successful in recruiting, they can basically name their price owing to the fact they could walk into any job tomorrow, so salaries are going up and up."

"The commitment and time needed to complete Level 3 Early Years Educator qualifications versus the salary available is making staff reconsider their career choices." "People just can't afford to be in early years, why get paid minimum wage when you can stack shelves at Aldi for £12!" "We need help. This sector is collapsing."

The Early Years Alliance has an equally depressing report called Mind Matters which identified the state of negative stress experienced by so many Early Years teachers and practitioners. (apparently, I have to use this term to ensure we all know who we are?) Some of the key findings are pretty depressing.  25% are leaving because of the stress of working in the sector. What is causing this stress? The top four factors are:

  • Admin and paperwork
  • Failure of the business
  • Workload
  • Low pay

This week our previous children's commissioner Professor Sir Al Aynsley Green wrote a letter to The Times in despair. I have spoken to him about this on a number of occasions and he just cannot understand how everyone cannot see the state of the problem.

Do we know the answer to the problem? Of course we do. Working in Early Years should be a high status attractive job in a properly funded sector. LEYF has been running an integrated marketing campaign #GROWwithLEYF focussing on attracting free-thinking, commited and skilled candidates. We have looked at barriers into the sector such as attracting male candidates by using specific imagery as well as tracking where staff live so we can match staff to easy travel and lower cost housing neigbourhoods.

In line with Maslow's hierarchy of need we paid a lot of attention to our staff benefits including paying above the sector average salary, generous annual leave and excellent opportunities for career progression from within the organisation. But we are not alone and it's no silver bullet.
We know the benefits of early years to children are enormous and future proof us against some many social ills. Isn't it time to lead a national conversation with the parents of the UK and explain early education to them and the importance of great staff. The sector is relying on pedagogical hereos but all hereos die, is this what we want?

June O'Sullivan is chief executive of London Early Years Foundation

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