Low pay and high stress force childcare workers to leave jobs


Stress and low pay are among factors forcing "passionate" childcare workers out of the profession, a report has found.

Early years workforce numbers have dropped by 15.6 per cent over a year. Picture: Adobe Stock
Early years workforce numbers have dropped by 15.6 per cent over a year. Picture: Adobe Stock

A study by the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), produced alongside the Education Policy Institute, found that as a result, nine in 10 employers in England lost at least one member of staff in the past year.

Detailed interviews conducted for the report found that the challenges that forced staff to consider leaving the early years were the same across the workforce.

These included poor pay progression and low salaries, which were felt to be incompatible with increasing workload and responsibilities, as well as the job’s emotional and physical demands, which staff said were made worse by increasing paperwork and demands from parents and employers.

Many staff said they had difficulties supporting a family on their current salaries, which stopped many from seeing working in the early years as a long-term career option.

The report found that reception staff at nurseries in England earn more on average than childcare providers. Staff in private and voluntary childcare earn on average only £8.30 each hour, compared with £14.40 in state-funded nurseries, while reception staff earn £15.10.

Meanwhile, almost 45 per cent of childcare workers said they are reliant on state benefits or tax credits.

Workers also raised concern at a lack of social recognition afforded to early years education, feeling that society wrongly viewed the work as being “easy”.

The report calls for better communication about the critical role staff play in addressing inequalities. Recommendations for improving worker pay are also proposed, including matching early years pay with that of primary teachers.

It also calls for the government to consider a review of current training qualifications, to ensure staff are equipped with key skills for the job.

NatCen’s director for children and families, Ellen Broomé said: “Too often, the views of the people who work in the sector, and what they think would help deliver high-quality early years education, have not been heard.

"This study paves the way for the people who work with our youngest children to be part of the conversation.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said the government has invested £20m to improve training and development for the early years workforce, with a particular focus on disadvantaged areas.

“We have also worked with the early years sector to support progression through better qualifications, more apprenticeship opportunities and ensuring there are routes to graduate-level qualifications," she added.

However, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said it is clear that much more must be done to improve the recruitment and retention of early years practitioners.

"The first five years of a child’s life are absolutely vital to their long-term development, and yet this isn’t remotely reflected in the pay or recognition that the professionals who support this pivotal stage of early life receive," he said.

"Every day we hear of more and more talented, passionate practitioners choosing to leave the sector for roles with less stress and more pay. How can we continue to provide the best possible care and education to young children if we are increasingly unable to attract and retain the high-quality workforce needed to do so?"

Deborah Lawson, general secretary of Voice: The Union for Education Professionals, said many skilled early years professionals could earn more stacking supermarket shelves, but stay in the profession because it is their vocation.

“Such pay levels are not commensurate with the qualifications and experience required for early years professionals, especially for those at graduate level.

“I am pleased that this report reveals the workload pressures on practitioners. There has, rightly, been a focus recently on teachers’ workload, but workload issues in the early years sector have not been reported to the same extent.

“We know from our own members that many practitioners do not feel that they have a good work-life balance and regularly feel stressed about work, with some even considering leaving the early years sector due to stress and mental health difficulties, adding to the current recruitment and retention crisis.

“I am pleased that this report reveals the workload pressures on practitioners. There has, rightly, been a focus recently on teachers’ workload, but workload issues in the early years sector have not been reported to the same extent."

She said more must be done to improve the status and career progression of the early years workforce.

“That should include revising Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS) and seeking equivalency with Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).

“The government must implement an early years and childcare workforce strategy that is supported by a clear career pathway and national pay structure – and it must do it soon.”

Liz Bayram, chief executive at the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, said low pay barriers and unsustainable funding levels means many providers are being put in a position where they are having to make staff cuts, reduce training opportunities or leave a career they are passionate about in order to make ends meet for their own families.

"This is not a decision that those responsible for looking after the next generation should be facing," she said.

"A primarily female workforce are taking on more responsibility to support children but continue to be undervalued. A long-term workforce development and funding strategy that pays professionals a salary proportionate to the important job they do is not only vital for a skilled workforce but will help more families enjoy high-quality early education.”