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Staff exodus could hinder free childcare hours

Staff exodus could hinder free childcare hours
Emma Lunn
Written By:
Emma Lunn

Only 17% of nurseries said they could afford to offer the extended ‘free hours’ entitlement announced in the Spring Budget due to recruitment challenges.

More than half (57%) of all nursery workers questioned by the Early Education and Childcare Coalition (EECC) said they were considering or planning on leaving the sector in the next 12 months.

The EECC report Retention and return: delivering the expansion of early years entitlement in England, published together with the University of Leeds, revealed the scale of the workforce crisis in the early years sector.

The report’s publication comes as the government prepares to roll out the first phase of the ‘biggest expansion of childcare in history’ which will offer 30 hours of free childcare to eligible parents of nine-month-olds by 2025.

But researchers found that even using conservative estimates the number of childcare places in England would need to grow by 6% in order to meet the demand created by the government’s planned expansion.

Many nursery settings say they are unlikely to offer the new entitlement because of an inability to recruit and retain suitably qualified staff. The recent changes to staff/child ratios were found to increase the likelihood of early years professionals wanting to leave the sector.

Just 17% of nursery managers said it was likely they would increase the number of places they offered, while 35% said they would limit the number of places they offered unless there was more government support to enable them to recruit and retain staff. Two-thirds (67%) of nurseries were already reporting average waiting times of almost six months for a place.

Pay in the early years sector is tied to the government’s ‘free hours’ funding model and with a large proportion of a setting’s income coming via this route, low funding rates lead to low rates of pay, particularly among childminders. The research found that 70% of nursery managers think it is time for a new funding model.

Sarah Ronan, EECC director, said: “Promising more free childcare without the infrastructure to deliver it is raising false hope among already struggling families. If the government is to have any chance of delivering this expansion, it must listen to the people on the ground educating and caring for our children. Years of underfunding have left them underpaid, overworked and feeling disrespected. It doesn’t matter if it’s more free hours from this government or wholesale reform from Labour, the fact is nothing will change for parents or children unless we have a well-paid and valued workforce.”

Abby Jitendra, principal policy adviser for Care, Family and Relationships at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, said: “There is no quality childcare expansion without a new workforce strategy for the early years workforce. Government needs to value workers to attract them to the sector – this means development opportunities and ultimately, higher pay. We need to rethink how we fund providers, moving beyond funding a race to the bottom in quality to investing in driving up standards.”