One year to fix nursery workforce crisis - charity warns

With one year to go before the full roll-out of the Scottish Government’s flagship 1140 hours policy, private and third sector nurseries are facing a staffing crisis according to National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA). NDNA Scotland Workforce Survey report cover

Private and third sector providers, who make up over half of all day care settings and offer a quarter of all Government funded early learning and childcare (ELC), are struggling to replace qualified staff who are leaving for higher-paid jobs in the public sector. 

This talent drain is pushing up staff turnover to 29%, much higher than the UK average. Losing staff at this rate is estimated to have cost the private and voluntary nursery sector £68.4 million in the last year alone, based on research by Oxford Economics*. This equates to £12,068 per new starter in recruitment costs and lost productivity as staff members are replaced, trained and settle in.

High staff turnover affects the quality of early education and is disruptive for children’s continuity of care.

NDNA Scotland’s first early years workforce survey uncovered a workforce crisis as private and third sector nurseries struggle to recruit the right staff, and the majority (62%) face significant challenges keeping the workers they have.

Purnima Tanuku OBE, Chief Executive of NDNA, said: “We know from research that qualified staff and continuing professional development are key to delivering high quality early learning and childcare. It’s this quality of provision which will address the inequality gap and support the Scottish Government’s ambition to make Scotland the best place for a child to grow up. 

“But the results of our research paint a grim picture, with 71% of employers telling us they have problems recruiting staff at Practitioner level. If a Lead Practitioner cannot be replaced – and 48% are finding this a challenge – then a setting may struggle to stay open.

“A further 62% have significant challenges retaining their existing staff who are leaving for higher salaries in schools and council-run nurseries. On the funding rates partner providers get from councils, they cannot hope to compete with the salaries on offer for the same roles.

“As councils, nurseries and families prepare for the 1140 hours expansion next year, local authorities should be supporting nursery providers not competing with them for staff. We know that the criteria being applied to ‘phasing-in’ has meant that some providers haven’t been able to offer extended hours with 42% of nurseries saying they are not being involved. 

“Working parents value the flexibility that private and third sector nurseries, open all year round, can give them. This choice must not be compromised. Private providers should be treated equally and supported to play their part in delivering the 1140 hours policy by 2020. While progress is being made in some areas there are still a lot of challenges facing this policy.

“Scottish Government acknowledges the fact that private and voluntary partner providers play an important role in the ELC expansion. However, if funding rates aren’t sustainable and these staffing issues remain, nurseries will struggle to stay open, putting ELC places at risk and no-one wants to see that.”  

NDNA Scotland is appealing to the Scottish Government and to local authorities to address the workforce crisis ahead of the 1140 roll-out next year by reviewing funding rates for ELC places in line with rising costs. It is also recommending that more resources are made available to encourage people to train for a career in the ELC sector. In addition, to ensure that partner providers retain sustainable staffing levels, it is recommended that councils review local recruitment policies and practices to ensure a balanced approach is being taken. 

Read the full report here

The survey covered 181 nurseries across Scotland employing over 2,200 staff to look after more than 12,200 children. It revealed that:

Qualifications of staff and training:

  • 58% of workforce are qualified to work at Practitioner level; 15% at Lead Practitioner level; 30% as a Support Worker level 15% are unqualified (trainees, assistants and apprentices)
  • 35% under age of 25 and 66% (two thirds) age 34 and under compared with less than a third (28%) under 35 in local authority settings
  • Men in childcare – 5% but down to 3% in single site businesses33% expect to spend more on staff training than those who expect to spend less (20%) this could relate to the need to train up new members of staff or upskill their existing staff team

Recruitment and retention:

  • 71% of employers reported issues in recruiting staff qualified to Practitioner level
  • Major problem if Lead Practitioner can’t be replaced – 48% find this a problem – due to Care Inspectorate recommendations
  • 34% said they faced problems recruiting unqualified staff
  • 5.4% roles vacant in the sector – estimated 877 across PVI sector
  • 62% had “significant challenges” retaining staff
  • 9 out of 10 settings had at least one member or staff leave in past 12 months and some said they had to replace entire teams
  • High turnover rates of 29% higher than av, also higher than in England (24%) – costing estimated £68.4 million in past year and disruptive for children/quality of provision
    Main reason for staff leaving – to go to school or council setting followed by seeking higher salaries out of the ELC sector altogether
    1140 hours
  • Phasing in of 1140 hours seen as driving factor for staff leaving – some councils are not including private providers in local expansion plans
  • 42% had not been given the opportunity of being involved in “phasing-in”

Staffing costs:

  • As a result of increasing National Living Wage and National Minimum Wage, 38% expect their staffing budgets to rise by 5 – 6%; a further 13% expect them to rise by 7 – 8%
  • From Aug 2020 employers have to pay staff delivering the 1140 hours policy the Scottish Living Wage currently £9 per hour but due to rise in April 2020


  • Brexit is having a small but significant effect on recruitment – 17% had a staff member leave due to uncertainty around Brexit – any negative impact will further exacerbate the situation

Read the full report here. 

Some employer comments from the survey:

“The local Authority's ongoing recruitment drive is the main reason we are not retaining staff”

“We are facing a staffing crisis and we have been warning all the relevant parties for years now. Our concern now is that we are struggling to attract qualified staff to our setting and we will have to recruit apprentices. This will make the PVI sector become an apprentice factory, we will train them up and then they will be enticed by the local authority for less hours, more holidays, better pay, less responsibility”

“The councils say that they are not actively looking to recruit our staff, but in every instance of the 7 we have lost, they have gone to council jobs. The salary difference of between £7k & £10k is a stretch too far for us. We are teetering on the edge both financially & emotionally with the changes to 1140.”

“If you take it over 24 months our nursery lost its entire senior staff team to [local authority settings] because of the wages on offer. Nationally there has to be a support for private nurseries to help them to meet the wages on offer within the local authority, there is absolutely no way we can compete without support.”

“If local authorities used the current available spaces within partner [provider] settings for the 2020 expansion of hours then staffing levels would not become such an issue.”

“[I am] starting with a new team again, feel like I am training them up to go to the council settings – very frustrated.”

“Retaining qualified staff is challenging as I am in the voluntary sector and staff I have had for years which I have trained to a high standard left to go to LA nurseries.”

“We are struggling to keep our qualified staff due to Local Authority expansion of 1140 hours in their own settings and extremely high wages that they are paying, we simply cannot compete.” 
“I week that I cannot remunerate my staff to the same level as a local authority. I worry that whilst I can cut my income to meet the salaries, this cannot continue as utilities rise…. Rents are increasing and the likelihood of food costs increasing if Brexit happens makes for a bleak picture.”

“[The council are paying] £8k more than I could pay them. We miss them and I so wish that I could pay them just what they deserve.”

*Research from Oxford Economics in 2014 estimated that in the retail sector, the average UK employee earning £25,000 costs £20,144 to replace factoring in recruitment costs, training, other employees’ time and lost productivity as new staff become established. The retail sector is sometimes compared to early years for pay and conditions, despite the higher qualifications, skills and responsibilities of early years staff. Taking into account inflation since 2014 and an average advertised salary of £15,000, this 29% turnover can be seen as costing the sector an estimated £68.4 million in the past year alone based on Care Inspectorate figures of 19,890 staff in private provider settings.