Low pay, high workload and lack of career development among early years workers threaten child development

Picture: PAPicture: PA
Picture: PA
Low pay, a high workload and a lack of career development has led to an “increasingly unstable” early years workforce, which risks having a serious impact on the provision of care for under-fives, a new report has warned.

Research from the Social Mobility Commission showed that as many as one in eight of early years workers - including childminders, nursery staff and early years teachers - is paid under £5 an hour. The average wage is only £7.42 an hour, less than the minimum wage.

Turnover is high, at 15 per cent, mainly due to low pay, which affects both the quality of service and children’s outcomes, and a lack of training and career structure and excessive overtime is contributing to the unstable workforce, the research finds.

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The Commission said the pandemic had exacerbated the situation, and there was now a “real risk” that persistent disruption and lack of support for workers could affect the quality of early years provision.

Interim chair Steven Cooper said: “The early years workforce is vital in helping to narrow the development gaps between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and privileged ones.

“We must do everything we can to ensure that childminders and nursery workers are valued more by ensuring we pay them a decent wage, give them a proper career structure and ensure their workload is reasonable. The Commission will be pressing the government and employers to take urgent steps to improve the stability of childcare provision in these critical years.”

The Commission has proposed a comprehensive career strategy for the early years workforce, including attracting older workers into the profession, and has called on the government to match the operational costs of providing childcare to take account of increases in inflation and the national minimum wage.

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Report author Dr Sara Bonetti, director of early years at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said: “This research highlights the multiple barriers that early years workers face on a daily basis, with low pay, lack of career options and negative perceptions of their profession holding them back. The pandemic now threatens to exacerbate many of these problems.

“We must do far more to support workers, otherwise we risk compromising the quality of provision and widening the disadvantage gap.”

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance (EYA), warned that all too often the early years sector is “still seen as the poor relation of schools”.

He said: “Years of inadequate Government investment into the early years has resulted in unacceptably low salaries across the sector, with many practitioners regularly working long hours for little or no additional pay. Is it any surprise, then, that more and more are opting to leave and seek employment opportunities elsewhere?”

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Responding to the report, shadow minister for children and early years Tulip Siddiq said: “Years of underfunding has left childcare professionals working long hours for very low pay. This is driving talented staff out of the sector and letting down the young children whose life chances are shaped by vital early education.

“Labour has been calling for targeted support to save the thousands of nurseries and childminding businesses that are threatened with closure due to Covid-19. But we cannot go back to undervaluing the childcare workforce after this crisis - we must invest in them for the sake of the next generation.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have invested £20 million in improving the training and development available for staff working in early years settings, particularly targeted at those working in disadvantaged areas, and we are supporting their career progression through better qualifications, more apprenticeship opportunities and routes to graduate level qualifications.

Nurseries, preschools and childminders are a vital support network for families, and will play an integral role in this country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. That’s why they have received significant financial support over the past months and will benefit from a planned £3.6 billion funding in 2020-21 to local authorities for free early education and childcare places. We continue to provide extra stability and reassurance to nurseries and childminders that remain open by ‘block-buying’ childcare places for the rest of this year at the level we would have funded before coronavirus – regardless of how many children are attending.”

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