New research published today (Friday 25 September) by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) shows that 71% of staff in early years settings were furloughed between March and August.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the early years workforce: Staffing decisions in an uncertain environment draws upon a survey of 445 early education and care providers in England, Scotland and Wales, active between 4-26 August.
Early years education providers include private, voluntary, and independent nurseries and pre-schools.
The pandemic and economic downturn have significantly affected early years education, causing disruption to providers since the lockdown began earlier in the year.
Researchers have found that 4% of staff in these settings have been made redundant and 7% of staff voluntarily terminated their contract, with 30% of settings reporting ‘finding alternative employment during furlough’ as the reason for termination. Indeed, settings report employing 9% fewer staff in August than in March.
The least qualified and least experienced staff have borne the brunt of the impacts of total or partial closure of settings: they are more likely to be furloughed, made redundant or to have left for other work.
The findings suggest that early years settings value experience more than qualifications, with 48% reporting that they take qualification levels into account when making furloughing decisions, compared to 68% of settings taking experience into account.
Purnima Tanuku OBE, Chief Executive of NDNA, said: “Prior to the pandemic the childcare sector was already facing serious workforce challenges but Covid-19 risks pushing this into a full-blown crisis. This is a time of great uncertainty for early years providers, staff and families. Childcare must be at the centre of any economic recovery as people look to return to work.
“That’s why we’re committed to tracking the impact of the pandemic on early years and the workforce as it unfolds. This is just the first part of a year-long study but already the findings are proving important and I want to thank all the providers who took part in this survey.
“The findings that 15% of staff had been put on reduced hours and 25% have been on part-time furlough shows that the Chancellor’s Job Support Scheme will help some in the sector avoid a cliff edge at the end of October. However this scheme provides less support to employers than furlough and doesn’t address concerns of chronic underfunding.
“High quality early education is crucial to giving every child the best possible start in life. Having a well-qualified, secure and motivated workforce is central to this quality of care and education. Only by having the latest data can we understand what the sector needs to ensure childcare places are available when families need them.
“The findings so far point to a lot of uncertainty, even with the Job Support Scheme. We’ll continue to work with the sector and governments to ensure the challenges are understood and addressed.”
Early years settings have furloughed 71% of their staff since March. Staff most likely to be furloughed were those who held lower levels of qualifications:
4% of early years staff have been made redundant. Staff with higher levels of qualifications were least likely to be made redundant.
Early years settings were more likely to furlough staff if they had higher redundancy rates.
Commenting on the new findings, Dr Sara Bonetti, Director of Early Years at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said: “This report highlights the striking scale of furloughing and redundancies made by early years settings from March to August of this year. In spite of most settings reopening from June, 1 in 5 staff remain on part or full time furlough, suggesting that come the end of the scheme in October, we can expect even more redundancies than we have seen to date.
“Early years settings are facing highly uncertain operating conditions. They are expected to make staffing decisions for the coming months, despite it being difficult to predict demand for their services. This is particularly alarming, given the existing, widely publicised recruitment crisis ongoing in the childcare sector.”
Following the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday, Dr Bonetti added: "Yesterday's wage subsidy scheme from the Chancellor may offer short term relief for the early years sector, but financial problems for providers have been entrenched for a while, so without additional targeted support, it's likely that significant pressures will grow in a few months' time.
"Our findings have highlighted just how reliant the early years sector has been on the furlough scheme, and how there is a real risk of further redundancies among workers. Providers have trimmed their workforce over the last few months, and we could well see another wave of staff redundancy in future.
"We know that workers in the sector have been dealing with very low pay for a while, creating instability among the workforce. The sector has seen a pay reduction of nearly 5 per cent in real terms since 2013. With workers who usually earn minimum wage taking home as little as 77 per cent of their income under the Chancellor's new scheme, this could result in many looking for jobs elsewhere.
"The government should look to provide early years workers with as much job security as possible. There is a risk that continued disruption to the workforce could affect the quality of childcare provision for families.”