Decline in demand for early years provision during the winter months risks creating long-term staffing shortfall, report finds 

New research finds that low attendance rates and a fall in families taking up government-funded early years education could lead to a shortfall in qualified staff in settings after the winter period.

The report, published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), shows that the demand for places in settings such as nurseries and pre-schools has still not returned to pre-pandemic levels. This lack of demand continues to cause financial instability for the early years sector, resulting in staff being made redundant, having their pay reduced, or voluntarily leaving settings.

The study warns that if demand for early years places rebounds next year, settings may be unable to find suitable replacements for those staff who have left over the last few months, which could compromise the quality of early years education on offer in the long term. 

Drawing on a survey of settings representing over 10,000 early years staff across England, Scotland and Wales based in private, voluntary, and independent settings, researchers found that between August and November, 6% of early years staff were furloughed, while 1% of staff had been made redundant. 

As many as 7% of early years staff ended up voluntarily terminating their contracts during this period, with a quarter (24%) of settings reporting that these employees did not return to their old jobs because they found alternative employment during furlough. 
The fall in demand for early years education
Most early years settings in England, Scotland and Wales such as nurseries and pre-schools, faced closure between August and November:
  • Three quarters (73%) of early years settings have had to fully or partially close. 
  • The most common reasons for closures was insufficient demand for places (72%) and staff members or children self-isolating (26%). 
  • Settings reported that 6% fewer children are currently attending than in a typical year.
  • In England, fewer children are also taking up government-funded childcare places. The three main early years offers in England – the 15 hours entitlement for 2-year olds, the 15 hours for 3-4-year-olds and the 30 hours for 3-4-year-olds – all saw a significant decline in demand: around half of settings reported fewer children taking up these government-funded places. 

Furloughed staff in the early years
The UK-wide furlough scheme was extended until March 2021, with a high proportion of early years staff still on the scheme. Staff were most likely to be furloughed if they held lower qualifications:

  • Overall, 6% of early years staff have been on full-time furlough since August.
  • 12% of staff with no qualifications had been furloughed.
  • 8% of staff with level 3 or 4 qualifications (at least A level or equivalent) had been furloughed.
  • 6% of staff with level 2 qualifications (GCSE or equivalent) had been furloughed.
  • 6% of staff with level 6 qualifications (bachelor’s degree level or equivalent) had been furloughed.

Early years workforce volatility: staff leaving jobs and other trends
A significant proportion of early years staff have terminated their contracts or faced redundancies between August and November:

  • As many as 7% of staff voluntarily terminated their contracts. 
  • A quarter (24%) of settings reported that these employees did not return to their jobs because they found alternative employment during their furlough period. 
  • 1% of early years staff faced forced redundancies over this period of three months.
  • While many settings have had to make staff redundant or have seen staff voluntarily leave, the average size of the workforce is still estimated to have grown by 5% over this period, highlighting the varying experiences of early years providers. This could be an indicator that the sector is consolidating, with some settings able to expand while others reduce their operations or close.  
  • However, if the decline in demand for early years provision is temporary and demand increases after the winter, the loss of staff seen by some settings could prove costly. Many early years settings are likely to face significant challenges recruiting new staff, especially those with relevant qualifications. 

Training and CPD for early years staff
Good training and CPD are a key part of supporting a high-quality early years workforce, but some professionals appear to be missing out on such opportunities:

  • Two in five (41%) settings reported that they have no current need for CPD.
  • Some gaps in staff training opportunities are apparent, with nearly half of settings saying there were not enough opportunities to access specialist training such as training on child trauma and bereavement or supporting children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND).
  • Around a quarter of settings (23%) also said that there were too few opportunities for training on paediatric first aid, which is mandatory for some early years staff.

Commenting on the new research, Joshua Cottell, report author and Senior Researcher at the Education Policy Institute (EPI) said: “The early years sector and its workforce have continued to see great instability, stemming from a lack of demand for early years places over the last few months and a heavy reliance on the furlough scheme. Our research found that over the autumn and into the winter, many professionals were made redundant or chose to find employment elsewhere. 

“Nurseries, pre-schools and other early years settings are likely to encounter huge challenges to deliver education and care for families after the winter period – if demand for early years provision picks up again next year, many providers could suddenly be facing a staffing shortfall. 

“High quality staff are key to supporting children’s early development. It’s crucial that early years providers are given sufficient financial support so that they can give their workforce the job security, pay and training they need. If we fail to support the early years workforce, we risk compromising the quality of education and care for our youngest children.  
NDNA’s Chief Executive Purnima Tanuku OBE said: “This research paints a picture of how difficult this quarter has been for early years settings. With Covid-19 cases high in the community, the majority have faced having to close rooms or whole nurseries due to staff and children self-isolating. 

“The need to keep children in smaller groups and minimise mixing, ensuring settings are Covid-safe, places higher demands on staff time. Adding in extra responsibilities like enhanced cleaning has also seen fewer staff furloughed than expected, despite lower uptake of places. 

“With the promised Job Retention Bonus no longer being given out in February and no announcement made yet for funding arrangements from January, early years providers are staring down a very uncertain future. 

“We know that high quality early years education gives all children the best start in life but particularly those who are from disadvantaged backgrounds. In order to give this high quality, the sector needs to attract good candidates and retain qualified staff.

“Nursery businesses need urgent financial support now, in the shape of certainty over January’s funding and emergency support to cover the costs of Covid if they are to be sustainable. Reports recently released by Ofsted demonstrate that the pandemic has had a negative impact on children’s development though reduced attendance at nursery.  Children’s development and well-being need to be prioritised so those who educate our youngest children must also be prioritised.”

Read the full report here - The Covid-19 pandemic and the early years workforce: Staffing decisions in an uncertain environment