Without proper investment, the government will drive the early years sector into the ground

Will Snell
Monday, March 20, 2023

If the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector was a bus, then Jeremy Hunt has just announced a major expansion in the number of seats on it, but without doing anything to upgrade an engine that was already struggling.

Will Snell is chief executive of the Fairness Foundation
Will Snell is chief executive of the Fairness Foundation

What do I mean by this inelegant metaphor? I’m talking about the government’s failure to invest in the early years sector at a level that is sufficient to tackle a key problem – chronically low pay – while announcing a major expansion of free early years provision.

A recent article by academics from the University of Manchester forcefully made the point about how much pay is hurting recruitment and retention in the sector:

Many ECEC providers have told us that they cannot compete for staff with other essential services such as schools and the NHS, where starting salaries, career progression and pensions are often better. Since COVID-19, providers also struggle to compete with supermarkets, many of whom pay at least the real living wage and offer part-time, flexible work that has fewer physical and emotional demands. Our research also indicates that some potential early years educators estimate that they would be financially better off staying on Universal Credit.

We know that low pay undermines quality, by making it harder to attract properly qualified staff, as well as availability; and lower quality provision is less effective at tackling inequality by reducing attainment gaps for disadvantaged children. And we know, thanks to quick analysis of this week’s budget by the Early Years Alliance and the Women’s Budget Group, that the government’s increased funding for the 30 free hours is not enough to enable the sector to increase wages to where they need to be. According to Politico, Treasury sources have confirmed that, while funding to nurseries will increase from around £6 to £8 per hour for two-year-olds, the increase for three- and four-year-olds is much smaller (from £5.29 to £5.50). The WBG calculates that the funding shortfall is £5.2 billion – and that’s just to pay workers the national living wage.

What does the public think about this? Is there a tension between the understandable focus of parents on affordability and the need to tackle poverty wages in the sector? To find out, we commissioned some polling from Opinium earlier this month on public attitudes to pay in the early years sector, and we’ve just published the results.

What we found was the opposite of a zero-sum mindset. Instead we saw solidarity, and a widespread recognition that paying people a decent wage is in everyone’s best interests. 79 per cent of Britons think that wages in the early years sector are too low, and only 10 per cent disagree. This view unites parents, grandparents and non-parents, men and women, and voters across party lines (including 79 per cent of Tory voters as well as 87 per cent of Labour voters). Interestingly, an even higher proportion of parents struggling with childcare costs - 85 per cent - agree that wages in the sector are too low.

We also found that people don’t realise how low wages are for people working in the early years sector, overestimating hourly pay by an average of 47 per cent (£10.90 compared to £7.42). And people were concerned about sustainability, quality and equality, as well as about the affordability, availability and flexibility of early years provision.

Three quarters of respondents agreed that we should value early years workers as much as other staff in the education sector, and that we should pay them enough to get by, while there was strong majority recognition that increasing wages was crucial for giving children the best quality education and care.

Jeremy Hunt’s budget announced some welcome and overdue investment in the early years. But there’s resounding public support for going further than the Chancellor went on Wednesday, and investing in the engine as well as the seats by providing the funding needed to pay early years workers what they – and we – deserve.

Will Snell is chief executive of the Fairness Foundation

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