Staff exodus could hinder expansion of free childcare in England, providers say | Childcare

A mass exodus of childminders and nursery staff risks scuppering the government’s flagship new funding for parents of young children in England, according to a new coalition of early years providers and campaigners.

More than half of all nursery workers surveyed by the Early Education and Childcare Coalition (EECC) said they were considering or planning on leaving the sector in the next 12 months.

In the spring budget, the chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, announced plans to massively extend the government’s offer of 30 hours of “free childcare” to children aged between nine months and two years by 2025, billing it as “the single biggest investment in childcare in England”. But the EECC said there are likely to be a “lot of disappointed parents” if staffing means places are undeliverable.

The report – Retention and return: delivering the expansion of early years entitlement in England – estimates that about 180,000 extra children will enter childcare settings by 2025, at the same time as large numbers of staff say they are planning to leave because of low pay, lack of career progression and increased workload.

The first tranche of free hours – 15 hours of childcare for eligible working parents of two-year-olds – is due to start in April next year.

“It pains me to say it but I think there’s going to be a lot of disappointed parents,” said Sarah Ronan, the acting director of the EECC. “Just because the chancellor says you get 30 free hours – like Oprah handing out free cars – it doesn’t make it a reality. What makes it a reality is having the infrastructure and a well-trained, qualified, well-paid workforce in place.”

The report found that only 17% of nursery managers said they could offer the extended “free hours” entitlement because of the recruitment crisis, while 35% said they would limit the number of places they offered unless the government helped with recruitment.

The situation is more acute for nurseries offering provision for children with special education needs and disabilities (Send), said the EECC, with 87% of nursery respondents and 63% of childminders saying they were working with more children with Send, often without the right support for the child. Other workers reported an increase in workload, which they said was exacerbated by the recent relaxation of staffing ratios for two-year-olds from 1:4 to 1:5.

Years of underfunding have left the early years workforce “underpaid, overworked and feeling disrespected”, said Ronan. A freedom of information request by the Early Years Alliance revealed in 2021 that the government had knowingly underfunded “free hours” over the past decade.

From September 2023, funding rates per child will increase from an average of £5.29 to £5.62 for three- to four-year-olds, and from an average of £6 to £7.95 for two-year-olds. The Women’s Budget Group argues that a rate of £9.03 an hour for three- to four-year-olds is required to cover costs.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said its data indicated a stable workforce. “[B]ut we know there is more to do, which is why we are launching a new national recruitment campaign in the new year, and an accelerated apprenticeship route into the sector to help recruit new staff,” they said. “To support existing staff we are investing hundreds of millions of pounds to increase rates paid for government-funded hours and are providing a package of training, qualifications, and expert guidance worth up to £180m.”

The EECC – a body of more than 30 organisations including charities, parent campaign groups, early years providers, trade unions and business groups – surveyed 1,000 early years educators and interviewed 60 in focus groups.

It calculates that as many as 100,000 new staff members will need to be found before the end of 2025, if those nursery workers currently intending to leave the profession go through with their plan. Even if the sector retains workers, its more conservative scenario estimates than 22,000 workers will have to be employed to service an additional 180,000 children expected to take up “free hours” by the end of 2025.

About 10,000 childcare workers – mainly childminders – have left the early years sector since 2019, a 3% drop in the workforce. The EECC argues it now needs to increase by at least 7% by 2025 to make the new hours deliverable.

The survey found that 17% of nursery workers were intending to leave the sector in the next 12 months, and 40% said they may leave, while almost 40% of childminders were considering leaving.

The organisation has urged the government to urgently implement a rescue plan, including increasing hourly funding rates, funding more training and ensuring all staff are paid at least the real living wage.

One worker from a nursery in Sheffield told the report – carried out by the EECC and Leeds University and supported by the Kiawah Trust and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation – that they were worried.

“I hope the sector doesn’t fall apart,” they said. “I hope the government just learns to listen and not be short-termist, and that they really value this sector and put into place some good building blocks for the future. For the sake of all the children, really.”

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