The early years sector is at last beginning its recovery from the Covid storm, with the rate of infections and bubble closures finally subsiding to manageable levels in the last couple of months.  No sooner had we breathed a collective sigh of relief, however, and looked at the encouraging and rapid rise in occupancy across all our settings, as more parents went back to work, and older siblings went back to school, when we then realised that our recruitment efforts weren’t able to keep pace with the rising numbers of children.  On speaking to other nursery groups, it quickly became apparent that this is a sector-wide problem, and that it is as bad, if not worse, than it has ever been in the 30 plus years that we’ve been operating. We’ve prided ourselves on not using agency staff to cover staff absences, but last week I asked our HR manager to look into the availability of agency staff, as the staff cover problem was becoming increasingly difficult to manage. I’m not sure whether it was more reassuring or worrying that the response from one of the agencies was that they were closing their early years books for several weeks, due to the shortage of available early years practitioners, and that this was a first for them.

We had already had to reluctantly accept that we had to lower our usual target of 75% of all practitioners being qualified to level three. The statutory minimum is 50%, but well qualified teams are in a better position to support the handful of trainees in each nursery, and there is a well-researched correlation between qualifications and quality. We realised that a ‘grow-your-own’ strategy was the only way to solve the shortage of qualified practitioners, but that, of course, takes time, and relies on the goodwill of staff who might already be feeling under pressure to manage a higher number of key children per person than usual, and sometimes overtime on top of an already exhausting number of hours. A workforce that is feeling overworked, underpaid and undervalued (not by us or the parents, but by the government) is not going to be an easy sell to new entrants to the early years sector.  But as my glass is always half-full, let’s find a silver lining to this cloud of doom and gloom. 

Firstly, the appreciation and support of parents, particularly during the last year, has been heart-warming and essential for staff morale, and it enhances the job satisfaction that comes from seeing children develop and flourish. Secondly, what other sectors (apart from entertainment) could argue that the amount of smiles and laughter that can be seen and heard can provide an indication of excellent performance? Thirdly, as summer approaches, how many other jobs can largely be done outside – and with the choice of indoors to retreat to when too hot or cold? Finally, if the sector really is in a serious recruitment crisis, maybe at last salaries will be forced up, to a level that reflects the professionalism and responsibilities of the early years workforce, which really would be a silver lining.

Not to be too much of a Pollyanna, though (and showing my age with that reference), increasing salaries can’t be done without compromising affordability for families.  This is the dilemma we find ourselves in, as we have always tried to ensure that we cater for all working families, not just those on higher incomes, and not just those who are eligible for funded places.  Apart from the overly complicated and limited tax-free childcare scheme, and the funding for a small percentage of two-year-olds, there is no real support for most families with children under three, including at the point where it is probably most needed, on returning to work after maternity leave.  I think few people by now are under any illusions that the government’s funded hours go far enough in terms of the hourly rate, but the lack of financial support is a wider issue than just the hourly rate, and in terms of training, this also affects recruitment and retention. 

The days of the Home-Grown Graduate Incentive, and the Graduate Leader Funding are sadly long gone, and the much-vaunted apprenticeship funding is also more limited than most people realise.  If someone (maybe after having coped with small children throughout lockdown) decides to change their career and enter the early years sector, they may not just be deterred by the low salaries, but also by the cost of training – funding is only available for those not already in possession of an equivalent level of qualification in a different sector.  With the demise of children’s centres, and the huge pressures on local authority funding, and the growing inequality and deprivation in our society (yep, another political point, sorry), our responsibilities for supporting families in need, and for multi-agency working, are growing.  If the government don’t address the funding crisis in early years, the sector will continue to be driven into a two-tier system, with high quality care and education for those who can afford it, and only basic provision for those who can’t.  No-one goes into early years expecting to earn high salaries, but practitioners have families and financial needs, (some even have second jobs) and higher salaries would help to attract the best, and to enable them to stay within the sector – and, more importantly, to develop professionally and personally and help to shape the next generation.

And let’s be realistic about the demands of the job.  In order to cater for working families, nurseries need to be open long hours, which means we can’t offer school hours, and there’s a limit to how many part-timers we can take on before it has an impact on the continuity of care for the children.  The responsibilities are enormous – we’re caring for very precious children, and as well as needing teaching and caring skills, there is also a requirement for vast amounts of patience and emotional resilience, and not everyone appreciates the level of professionalism involved (yes, I’m looking at you again, Boris, and your side-lining of the whole sector during the pandemic). It’s not just the low salaries that deter men from joining the early years workforce (which is still 96% female) – it’s the status and perception of the job that needs to improve, and particularly with the next generation, to address the assumption that it’s only a career choice for non-academic females. The single biggest factor that influences the quality of an early years setting is the calibre of the staff team – we need to recruit, develop and retain dedicated and professional early years practitioners, and that is becoming more and more difficult. Funding on its own will not solve the problem immediately, but it would enable early years settings to ease the pressure on the workforce, provide more support and professional development, and to reward the dedication and commitment of keyworkers, who, like the nursing profession, have worked incredibly hard over the last year, and now need to have some recognition of their value to society.