Nursery crisis: Stacking shelves more appealing than educating children

More attractive retail jobs with improving pay and fewer responsibilities are luring qualified nursery practitioners away from working with young children, according to National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA). 

The number of nursery workers qualified to Level 3 has plummeted to crisis levels in the last four years, from 83% of the early years workforce to just over half now (52%). Cost to the sector graphic

And the research NDNA carried out for its 6th early years workforce survey for England also revealed above-average staff turnover for the sector with experienced staff being replaced by younger, inexperienced, less qualified employees. Based on research by Oxford Economics on the costs of replacing staff, NDNA estimates staff turnover cost £879m in the last year alone.

More nurseries admitted they were finding it harder to recruit qualified staff than previously as salaries, better hours and a loss of passion were given as the main drivers for practitioners leaving the sector. Nearly half of leavers (48%) headed for new jobs in retail. 

Purnima Tanuku OBE, Chief Executive of NDNA, said: “We know that the situation in our nursery workforce has been deteriorating over the last few years, but sadly our latest survey reveals a full-blown crisis.

“It’s the children who ultimately suffer. We know that high quality early education is key to giving them a strong start to their educational journey but a high staff turnover means less continuity of care, with new starters replacing well-known faces.

“Nursery staff qualified to Level 3 or above understand about child development and how best to support and nurture our children. A less qualified workforce could undermine nurseries’ efforts to drive up quality. It is vital that the early years workforce is valued, recognised and properly rewarded for the crucial role they play in society.

“We know that employers would love to pay their staff at the rate they deserve but are ham-strung by government underfunding for ‘free’ places which leaves childcare providers struggling to make ends meet. As a result they are finding it harder to attract the right candidates.

“We are laying the facts bare and calling on the Government to stop ignoring the situation any longer. In 2017, the DfE drew up its Early Years Workforce Strategy but with very little investment behind it, we have not seen the benefits of this in real terms.

“It’s heart-breaking that dedicated nursery workers are having to leave the jobs they love for the retail sector because they need a better wage. The Government is letting down our children by not supporting those who work tirelessly to give them the best possible start in life.”  

Read the full report here 

The survey covered 705 nurseries employing over 14,000 staff and received 257 practitioner responses and revealed that:

Qualifications of staff and training:

  • Only 52% of the early years workforce is now qualified at Level 3 or above with a further 17% qualified at Level 2. In 2015/16 the NDNA survey showed 83% of the workforce were trained to Level 3 so this is a significant reduction which could affect quality of provision
  • 26% of the workforce is made up of unqualified assistants, trainees or apprentices which is an increase of 16% on last year – employers are taking on more apprentices to alleviate funding pressures
  • There is an 8.4% drop in the number of graduates – this is unlikely to improve due to the drop in student numbers (365 entrants compared with 2,300 in 2013/14)
  • Government underfunding is changing how nurseries operate resulting in 14% employing fewer graduates/teachers, 16% employing fewer Level 3 staff and 18% taking on more apprentices
  • Men working with children make up less than 1% of the workforce among smaller providers – this rose within larger nursery groups
  • 55% of employers planned to spend less on training staff this year with 85% citing underfunding as the most significant factor in this budget reduction, meaning they are less likely to be able to upskill their teams 

Recruitment and retention:Staff turnover graphic

  • Turnover of staff is 24%, compared to the UK average of 15 – 18% - we calculate this can cost the sector an estimated £879 million in the past year alone (see Notes to editors for detailed explanation)
  • Main reason for leaving was for higher salaries out of the early years sector – 48% leave to work in retail; graduates and EY teachers leave to work in schools
  • 77% reported serious issues with employing Level 3 staff and 24% said they struggled to even recruit unqualified staff, made more significant by low levels of retention
  • 84% said it was harder now to recruit Level 3 qualified staff compared with 3 years ago, 34% said it was more difficult to find Level 2 staff and 40% said it was tougher to recruit graduates, so we know the situation is deteriorating
  • An average nursery has 1.6 vacancies leaving 7.6% of roles vacant across the sector, equivalent of 19,200 vacancies based on the DfE’s latest estimate of 252,800 total staff
  • 60% of leavers were qualified to Level 3 with 30% Level 2 which is exacerbating the recruitment crisis
  • 37% of practitioners said they were unsure how long they would remain in the sector and 24% said they would probably leave within one to five years


  • 11% of practitioners who responded to the survey said they were EU nationals born outside the UK
  • 48% of EU nationals were concerned about the impact of Brexit on their employment; 16% of employers with EU national staff said at least one had left in the last 12 months due to Brexit uncertainty

Working conditions:

    • 92% reported working some overtime compared with 79% last year but 54% of these work overtime occasionally, with 29% working up to five hours extra per week and 17% regularly working more than five hours extra – the staff are already stretched and overworked
    • 84% of respondents said they were paid at a level above the National Minimum Wage 

    Some employer comments from the survey:

    “We are looking for younger staff to keep minimum wage cost down.”

    “In 15 years of operating we have never faced such tough recruitment challenges - staff at all levels are incredibly scarce so when we are successful in recruiting they can basically name their price owing to the fact they could walk into any job tomorrow so salaries are going up & up.”

    “The commitment and time needed to complete Level 3 Early Years Educator qualifications versus the salary available is making staff reconsider their career choices.”

    “People just can't afford to be in early years, why get paid minimum wage when you can stack shelves at Aldi for £12!”

    “We need help. This sector is collapsing.”

    “Funding is having a massive effect on our workforce. Staff are stretched to the limits due to lack of funding and increase in children due to 30 hrs.”

    “I have lost some invaluable EU pedagogical staff since Brexit vote. The underfunding of funded hours & expansion in municipal areas means further haemorrhaging of staff to lush & lavish salaries in council. Cinderella has gone back among the cinders. This is tragic given the amount of work NDNA & individual settings have undertaken in the last 20+ years to extricate ourselves out of the hearth & onto the career & quality ladder. I despair.”

    Practitioner comment:

    “I am leaving the sector because the setting closed as funding has not increased.”


    Read the full report here.