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Early Years Practitioners Deserve to get Paid Fairly and Recognised for their Contribution to Society

Staff wages are a key concern of early years employers facing up to a funding and recruitment crisis, but the challenges the sector faces don’t end there…

  • Early Years Practitioners Deserve to get Paid Fairly and Recognised for their Contribution to Society

It’s official: the staffing crisis currently confronting day nurseries across the UK has reached catastrophic levels, and is now the biggest single challenge employers face.

Qualified nursery staff, particularly those with Level 3 qualifications, are leaving in record numbers. Figures from NDNA’s workforce survey, conducted earlier in 2018, illustrate the picture starkly. Just three years ago we had 20% more Level 3-qualified practitioners than we do now.

But the problem doesn’t end there. Employers are finding it extremely difficult to replace these lost practitioners with qualified staff; they simply don’t exist. Indeed, many are finding it hard to replace them with anyone, whether they have qualifications, experience or neither.

Funding shortfalls

The heart of the issue is that government hasn’t set aside enough money to invest in giving parents the free childcare hours promised before the 2015 election.

Whenever the Department for Education (DfE) is quizzed about this, ministers trot out the same phrase: that they are investing record amounts into childcare. This may be true – but crucially, it is not enough to pay for such an ambitious policy and is sending businesses spiralling into closure.

Why didn’t the decision-makers check to see how much it would cost them before committing to doubling the amount of hours our nurseries can deliver?

They must have seen what was on the horizon in terms of the increased minimum wages and pension costs although this clearly has not be factored in. Surely basic maths would have suggested that it would have led to increasing the funding to beyond record levels?

With insufficient funding given to most local authorities, providers try to offer funded childcare to parents who really value this in a way that works for them. But this means that, often, they can only afford to pay minimum wages.

This cannot be fair to practitioners, who deserve to get paid fairly and recognised for their contribution to society, reducing the inequality gap and boosting the economy.

Childcare and early education must be considered as crucial to the country’s infrastructure as an efficient transport system or smoothly working IT network. We saw how much working families relied on schools and childcare when many were forced to close during the late winter heavy snowfalls this year.

Without this vital lifeline, the UK’s general workforce in all industries would be greatly depleted and children would not start school ready to learn.

Unequal pay

Our Annual Nursery Survey, which we are currently analysing, reveals that paying staff wages is the top concern of early years employers across England, Scotland and Wales.

If they are struggling to pay their practitioners even the National Minimum Wage, then how do they hope to hold on to them or even attract newly qualified staff in the first place?

Research by PACEY and union Voice into employee pay and qualifications, released in April 2018, illustrates the disparity between pay in early years settings and schools.

It’s not surprising that the majority of current Early Years Teacher (EYT) students questioned would prefer to work in school classes instead of nurseries. The pay is more attractive, as are the hours and holidays. And yet they are delivering the same curriculum having received comparable training.

How can the PVI sector, particularly small and micro private businesses, compete with schools if they aren’t able to pay graduates and teachers a wage in keeping with their skills and qualifications?

How can they hold on to teachers while the government has a focus on schools over day nurseries, despite the fact that it’s the nurseries delivering the vast majority of funded places due to their flexibility and prominence in the market?

And why is government not recognising the value of small day nurseries, which deliver over 70% of early years provision in the system?

Wider issues

Sadly, it’s not just money that’s the problem. According to our 2017/18 Annual Workforce Survey, staff members who remain in the sector are having to work more hours than ever before, with overtime a regular feature.

How long can nurseries rely on goodwill before even the most dedicated employee begins trawling job adverts? No practitioner will be able to keep up this gruelling schedule for long before they struggle or become too exhausted and stressed to work.

This doesn’t sound like an attractive environment for new recruits to enter into, so it’s no wonder that employers are finding it hard to replace staff with anyone at all, let alone those with qualifications and experience.

Two-thirds of managers are unable to recruit suitable candidates, which could potentially reduce the quality of early education most settings currently offer.

What can be done?

Firstly, government must stop hiding behind its “record levels of investment” line and actually listen to what NDNA and the sector have been saying for years.

The evidence is overwhelming and from a number of sources, including the Treasury Select Committee, which advised a higher hourly rate and full business rates relief for nurseries in England, similar to that given in Scotland.

NDNA called for a thorough and rigorous assessment of the cost of delivery of funded hours for nurseries. But this must be done hand in hand with the nurseries themselves. Many of our members have offered to host visits and open their books for senior DfE directors to see for themselves.

This would be very useful for the government to finally understand the real cost pressures that providers are working under.

We want the DfE to carry out a robust costings exercise of providers’ costs before deciding how much investment to put into supporting and developing the early years workforce.

We sent a strong message to the DfE ministerial team with our response to their user consultation on parents and providers surveys. We attended, along with a group of member nurseries, an event hosted by their research and analysis team in May to make our intentions very clear.

The government’s Workforce Strategy launched in March 2017, has yet to show its teeth. We know that some work has been going on behind the scenes, with NDNA’s director of quality and training, Stella Ziolkowski, sitting on the Expert Reference Group for Level 2 qualification and career pathways.

But at the time of writing, there have been no announcements about reviewing the EYITT routes to make sure the impact of this is being maximised and felt across the sector.

We have heard nothing of the programmes the Strategy promised to develop to grow the graduate workforce in areas of disadvantage, or how it can raise the status of EYTs within the teaching profession.

We want to see a properly resourced publicity campaign to retain and attract high-quality candidates into early years, and the sector supported with an early years workforce investment fund.

This should be easy to bid into to help nurseries recruit and retain qualified staff. Finally, with nurseries struggling to give staff non-mandatory training due to squeezed budgets, government must assist local authorities and other training providers to make CPD more accessible for practitioners.

We will soon be releasing the results of our Annual Nursery Survey, which should evidence how many nurseries are suffering a funding shortfall and by how much.

Together with the workforce survey analysis, NDNA will have a comprehensive picture of how the sector is currently faring and the impact of the 30 hours policy on the sustainability of their businesses.

Armed with this crucial information, we have to trust that decision-makers will finally take note and act urgently to support private, voluntary and independent nurseries, which make up the backbone of our childcare infrastructure.

Purnima Tanuku OBE is chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association.

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