The importance of early years education in tackling socio-economic disadvantage has been widely acknowledged by most politicians and there is growing acceptance that a highly skilled childcare workforce is a key component of any social mobility strategy.
Yet despite this apparent consensus, there has still been little advance beyond warm words and general statements on the pressures facing the workforce – with scarce consideration of how childcare workers themselves are faring in the workplace, and how we can help them to deliver the best care for children.
New research published by EPI and supported by the Nuffield Foundation shines a light on those issues by considering childcare workers’ pay, working conditions, and training over the last decade and how they match up against those in other jobs.
Our findings highlight the scale of financial insecurity facing the childcare workforce.
First, pay is very low. At £8.20 an hour, childcare workers earn 40 per cent less than the working female population, and less than half that of teachers. Most significantly, pay has experienced large, real-terms declines since the aftermath of the recession. While the average female worker has seen an increase of 2.5 per cent since 2013, childcare workers have experienced a 5 per cent real terms cuts over the same period.
This means that pay is now at the same level as those who work in roles such as hairdressing and beauty therapy. Despite childcare workers holding slightly higher qualifications than those roles, research shows that motivation and financial incentives to stay in the sector are low. With their pay today now level-pegging, there’s little incentive to stop workers exiting the childcare sector, or opting for a different career from the outset. It is no stretch to suggest that this situation will threaten future recruitment.
We also find that a huge proportion of workers – almost half – are forced to access state benefits, potentially placing them into an even more precarious financial position.
What, then, is likely to be causing this financial instability? Several sources point to mounting financial strains faced by childcare businesses.
In the face of higher costs and lower (or in some cases, non-existent) profit margins, early years providers are driven to decide between two ways of recouping their costs: bump up parental fees, or lower the overall staffing structure and downgrade worker conditions.
Naturally, the first option is more likely to be avoided. Parents would, no doubt, be aggrieved by further increases to already high childcare costs, and may respond by seeking alternative childcare arrangements. Workers, however, have fewer ways and less agency to express their grievances.
Pay conditions are not childcare workers’ only problem. A highly-skilled workforce is critical to the quality of early years education, yet we find many workers have low qualifications, and are given few opportunities to undertake further training.
The childcare workforce is still considerably less qualified than teachers and the general female working population. In 2018, around a quarter of childcare workers had completed a degree or equivalent, in stark contrast to the 93 per cent of the teaching workforce. As such, it is clear that more should be done to allow childcare workers to develop their skills while in the role, in order to deliver higher quality childcare.
These worrying trends in pay and qualifications should trigger a strong response from both policy-makers and parents. After all, we are talking about the people that spend a large amount of time supporting the development of our children. These three quarter of a million workers, tasked with the socio-emotional, physical, cognitive and mental development of our children, are shouldered with increasing responsibilities and expectations.
Far more recognition is needed of the financial situations faced by early years professionals in England. The growing challenges revealed in today’s report should be met with urgency. If childcare workers lose out, then it is young children that are likely to pay the price.
Sara Bonetti is Associate Director of Early Years at the Education Policy Institute