'Early years are overworked and underappreciated'

A government serious about tackling inequality cannot ignore the needs of the early years workforce, says Sara Bonetti

Sara Bonetti

Early years and nursery workers are overworked and underpaid, warns the Education Policy Institute

Even before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the early years workforce was already in deep water. 

The 250,000-strong nursery workers and childminders who play an indispensable role in children’s development have long been subject to poor working conditions and a lack of support. 

The sector is increasingly defined by very low pay, high workload and low status. Such conditions are laid bare in new research from the Social Mobility Commission, carried out by the Education Policy Institute and NatCen. 

Most workers get by on the minimum wage, while as many as one in eight is paid under £5 an hour, in part because of a growing reliance on the use of unpaid volunteers and young apprentices. Many childcare workers are forced to take on a second job to make ends meet, and nearly half claim state benefits or tax credits – a proportion that is likely to rise in the coming months. 

An unfavourable deal for early years workers

Add to this high work demands, a lack of training opportunities and negative perceptions of the workforce in society, and it comes as little surprise that the sector is subject to high staff turnover. Why stay in the profession when you are on the receiving end of such an unfavourable deal? 

While much of the workforce is affected by these barriers, those in private, voluntary and independent settings, as well as childminders, tend to face more than those operating in maintained and school-based nursery provision.  

The lack of support afforded to workers makes very little sense when you consider how vital early years education is to children’s development and their educational outcomes. 

Learning and care in these formative years are especially crucial for the poorest children, who often face adverse conditions at home. Inequalities manifest themselves early on: we know that the development gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers is already well over four months before formal schooling even begins. 

These gaps then proliferate as a child makes their way into Reception and through the school system. 

Increasingly unstable workforce

Fast-forward a few more years, and we end up with school attainment gaps of over a year and a half by the time a disadvantaged pupil finishes compulsory education. 

Intervening early on with high-quality early years provision is, therefore, key – but this can only be done if there is an experienced and qualified workforce in place to deliver it.

Sadly, there is overwhelming evidence that this is far from the case. Instead, we are now witnessing a workforce that is becoming increasingly unstable, with too few new entrants replacing those leaving the sector. If these trends continue, we could well see adverse effects on the quality of services and children’s outcomes. 

And, worryingly, they may well continue. Covid-19 and the ensuing economic fallout have particularly affected early years education, causing huge disruption to providers since lockdown began. The ongoing crisis now threatens to exacerbate many of these longstanding workforce problems. 

Deep-seated problems

Now, more than ever, we need to install a comprehensive government strategy for the early years workforce, to tackle the array of workforce barriers and safeguard the sector against the many ill-effects of the pandemic. 

While pledges have been made, real policy transformation has been light, and deep-seated problems endure. A government workforce strategy does exist on paper, but little progress has been made on its more strategic commitments.

Secondly, a review of funding for the sector is urgently needed. Short-term support has been seriously lacking, with the early years having seen nowhere near the same levels of emergency financial relief given to schools. 

But the long-term funding picture is also important: the government needs to address the shortfall between costs to providers for childcare places and the actual money allocated for those places. The impending spending review may well offer an opportunity to rethink the funding system and address this mismatch.

Without a long-term view of how to tackle problems that have become so ingrained in the sector, early years professionals may well be forever stuck in a vicious cycle: frozen out, with little change to working conditions, support and career prospects.

Overworked, underpaid and underappreciated; it’s time we gave the early years workforce the support they need. A government serious about tackling educational inequalities cannot overlook the contribution of these vital workers. 

Sara Bonetti is director of early years at the Education Policy Institute think tank (EPI)

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