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It’s Time for a Radical Change to Tackle the Early Years Recruitment Crisis

When the first years of school are so critical, it’s a huge mistake for recruitment into the sector to be purely transactional, argues Mike Ruddle…

  • It’s Time for a Radical Change to Tackle the Early Years Recruitment Crisis

School readiness is the phrase on the lips of teachers and parents alike as the new academic year progresses and the latest troop of little ones take their first tentative steps in to education.

And with good reason.

There’s a wealth of evidence showing good quality early years provision plays a vital role in equipping children with the skills they need to thrive throughout their time at school.

But the early years sector is facing a chronic recruitment crisis – staff vacancies are reportedly somewhere in the region of 11,000 and according to the latest figures from the National Day Nurseries Association Workforce Survey, there has been a 20% fall in the number of Level 3-qualified practitioners within the day nursery sector since 2015.

While political debate over issues such as low pay and funding will undoubtedly continue, could an overhaul to the way practitioners are attracted and supported also help to provide part of the solution?

More than a job

Make no mistake, attracting and retaining good quality teachers is rapidly becoming one of the greatest challenges for education, from the nursery years onwards.

In a recent survey, 76% of headteachers and decision-makers said that finding high-quality teaching staff is the hardest and most stressful part of their job.

Part of the challenge is a diminishing pool of high quality candidates, which is fuelled by issues such as tight funding, low pay and unknown progression routes – issues that are familiar to those in the preschool sector.

One way to help address this is for nurseries and other early years settings to shout much louder about the opportunities they can offer, to boost their reputations as places that nurture talent and provide rewarding career choices.

Whether your preschool is independent, attached to a primary school or part of a multi-academy trust (MAT), you can make good use of your website to publish training opportunities, offer details of specialist career development pathways or include details of an innovative scheme your nursery has launched to improve children’s speech and language, for example.

This will support recruitment and retention by encouraging existing staff – and potential new recruits – to regard your setting as a good place to work.

More strategic thinking

With a diminishing number of applicants to vacancies, there is an increase in the use of agency staff to fill the gaps. This can be expensive, but arguably what is more problematic is the transactional approach to staffing that is often prevalent in relation to traditional recruitment methods.

Trying to find nursery managers and early years practitioners can easily involve a number of different agencies, who simply match qualified people with the increasing number of vacancies for a percentage of the candidate’s salary or a fixed fee.

This whole approach is very much focused on addressing the short-term issues and from what I have seen more broadly across the education sector, will not result in long-term benefits for nurseries.

A future vision

In my view, the recruitment industry needs to be held much more accountable for the supply staff they are placing. How different would it be if an agency worked more closely with an early years setting over time to ensure the suitability of the staff they match with vacancies?

Settings could follow the growing trend being adopted by schools and MATs and take a much longer-term approach to recruitment by building up a pool of supply teachers they can draw from who know the setting, its policies and culture.

A little forward planning can result in a more efficient way of getting good staff in place, when they are needed, saving time, effort and resources.

Currently, cost increases, funding reductions and changes to early years qualifications have created a staffing crisis that looks bleak.

The solution will never be simple. But adopting new approaches to recruitment could at least begin to address this fragile position and help settings to build a happy and engaged workforce focused on the most important thing – enriching young minds and preparing children to thrive once they start school.


Mike Ruddle, a director at specialist recruiters Affinity Workforce, is looking at new ways of working to address the skills shortage in the early years and education sectors.

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