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How your Nursery can Recruit and Retain the Best Staff

PACEY, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, asks three of its advisers what they think…

  • How your Nursery can Recruit and Retain the Best Staff

Research from around the globe has found that the key to delivering high-quality care and education to young children is highly qualified and trained staff. However, childcare and early years settings in England are reporting that they are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain the right people.

“The sector is in a particularly fragile position,” says Sue Meekings, former director of the Kiddi Caru nursery chain. “Settings are not in a position to pay staff more, and even the big chains are not creaming off big profits.”

The weakened financial position of many settings is due to a combination of factors, including the 30 hours childcare policy and increases to the minimum wage, pension contributions and business rates.

It is a perfect storm of cost increases and funding reduction that has left most settings with little capacity to increase pay or invest in staff development.

On top of this, numerous changes to early years qualifications over recent years have contributed to an overall lack of applicants for childcare roles, particularly in London and the South East.

There has consequently been a rise in the use of agency staff, further driving up costs for providers.

As Ruth Pimentel, a strategic early years consultant and former chief executive of the Toad Hall Nursery Group explains, “I’m not sure anyone has managed to crack the current crisis – it will take time to reverse the effects of the government policy on GCSE grades. I hear of many colleges who have had to close their childcare courses due to lack of students, and without the pipeline of new staff coming in the existing staff are in high demand.”


So what should settings do to recruit high-calibre staff from a dwindling pool of applicants? Emily Clark (name has been changed), who oversees a number of settings, recommends advertising as widely as possible, offering flexibility and extending the closing date if needed.

She explains, “For some positions we have had to change the hours to make the job more attractive.” She also advises that it is often effective to recruit apprentices, with a view to offering them full-time jobs once they are qualified.

In addition to the usual interview, one of the best way to spot talented practitioners is to “see them in action with children in the room”, according to Ruth. Emily agrees:

“In all interviews we also get the interviewees to interact with the children. We are looking specifically at their skills in playing with children, talking and listening to them.”


Although recruitment is tough at the moment, the more challenging issue for the sector in many ways is retention. The key to holding on to valued staff, our experts concur, is high-quality management.

As Sue puts it, a talented manager “can make miracles happen”. Emily agrees that managers are “vital” to the running of successful setting: “As well as knowing the statutory duties expected of them, they have to build an effective staff team, whilst keeping a professional distance in order to deal with any staffing issues that arise.”

Ruth points out the role of the manager in setting the culture and expectations of the staff: “If they get this right and staff are happy at work, then they can retain staff more readily and also integrate new staff so they immediately feel part of the team.”

Emily explains that in the settings she works with, all managers must do in-house personal management training. She stresses the need for good support around them from their senior management team such as deputies and room leaders. They also need to know where and when to ask for advice.

Sue adds that they must be able to “listen and take concerns seriously”.

What can managers do to make their settings a place practitioners don’t want to leave? Again our experts concur. What is essential is that they make staff feel personally valued.

Ruth asserts, “If staff enjoy their work, feel valued and respected then this is as valued as monetary reward.” Sue agrees, “People who know they’re cared about will stay. Adults need to be valued as much as children!”

Managers can show they value staff in a number of ways, for example, through providing occupational health and wellbeing services, staff forums for concerns to be heard, high-quality training and other support for further qualifications such as time off to study.

The little things matter too, for example, providing a pleasant break room in which staff can relax and socialise; ensuring people are always individually acknowledged; and keeping them informed so they are “not out in the cold”.

Sue stresses the need for staff to be empowered to make decisions and given the “breathing space to do their job properly”. She advocates that settings adopt a similar approach to schools and allocate staff a certain percentage of time each week to focus on their assessment, paperwork and personal development.

What can managers do to motivate staff when morale is low? First they must understand the reasons behind the low morale and address any immediate issues. This could be done through anonymous questionnaires, regular supervisions, or a staff meeting where people can safely air their thoughts.

Ruth explains that “by ensuring that you listen to staff it is hoped that you can nip any issues in the bud”. She adds, “Managers should also not underestimate the power of giving regular positive feedback to staff and small rewards, and the odd social event can also help!”

Emily also recommends that managers think carefully of ways to inspire staff again. This could be through training or the new tasks and projects to develop new skills and areas of expertise.

Attracting graduates

All the evidence shows that graduate-led early years settings are key to high quality, in particular closing the gap between the most and least disadvantaged children.

But recent research from PACEY and Voice found that the majority of current and prospective Early Years Teachers would prefer to work in a school-based early years setting rather than in the private, independent and voluntary (PVI) sector.

Ruth acknowledges that “unfortunately, the attraction of school-based settings is their better pay and conditions. I think PVI settings are a long way off matching that – particularly with the low funding rates that providers are having to operate with.”

Emily adds, “whilst pay and conditions are a matter for individual nurseries, they can only do so much with such a low funding rate for early education places.

Many of our nurseries run on tight margins, which are being squeezed further by increases to the National Living Wage and low rates for funding. If we were forced to pay higher wages for staff, then we would have to seriously consider the sustainability of some of our nurseries.”

She acknowledges that pay important to all of us but, for early years graduates, it’s more complex.

“My feeling is that people think they are more likely to be valued and supported in a school environment, as there is a more definite framework for training, progression, etc than in many PVI settings. If you are a graduate in Early Years there isn’t a definitive progression framework – especially as you can be a manager as a Level 3.”

Ultimately all PACEY’s advisers agreed on one factor that would make a difference in the long term: that is for government to help society value the contribution early years makes and ensure – through higher taxation – that high-quality childcare is better funded.

As Sue Meekings says, we cannot squeeze parents any harder; for most parents, after their mortgage, say childcare is their most expensive outgoing.

To retain graduates we need to look at the Scandinavian model, or places like Italy and New Zealand where greater funding is provided by the state, through higher taxation and there is a clear professional career pathway that means individuals are keen to work in early years, a profession as valued as teaching.”

3 ways to retain your best

“Ensure that you are marketing your setting positively in the local area, as this has the double effect of recruiting staff and parents. Make sure the nursery is regularly featured in local events, newspapers and online.”

– Ruth Pimentel

“Take steps to make staff feel personally valued and make best use of the talents they already have.”

– Sue Meekings

“Invest in your staff, through both training and your time. Ensure you are looking at succession planning, for example, by training in-house with apprentices. Look at your staff team and consider what you could do to improve staff cohesiveness.”

– Emily Clark

PACEY is a charity dedicated to supporting everyone working in childcare and early years to provide high quality care and early learning for children and families. PACEY membership; its services, including insurance, and support helps nurseries, preschools and childminders to build bright futures for the children in their care. Visit pacey.org.uk.

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