Staffing shortage threatens delivery of flagship 30-hour childcare offer

Childcare settings in England are struggling to recruit the staff they need to deliver 30 hours free childcare for working families, finds latest research from Ceeda. 

Research conducted by Ceeda in July and August 2017 shows almost one in two (45%) private and voluntary sector day nurseries and pre-schools have vacancies, totalling an estimated 24,600 posts.

Worryingly, more than four out of five nurseries (84%) recruiting say they are finding vacancies hard to fill, putting the expansion needed to meet a 30-hour offer at risk.

To put this in a wider context, in November 2016 8.9% of primary schools had at least one advertised vacancy or temporarily filled post1, vacancy levels which the National Audit Office recently concluded could impact on the quality of education2.

More than half of all childcare vacancies (12,850 posts), are for staff with level three (A-Level equivalent) childcare qualifications. These qualified staff play a lead role in nursery teams and are essential in meeting legal requirements for adult-child ratios and the delivery of high quality care and education.

There are a further 4,180 estimated vacancies for apprentices, indicating shortages at entry level too.  

Current pressures are, in part, the legacy of a Government decision in 2014 to require GCSE Maths and English – as opposed to functional skills – for Level 3 childcare qualifications. Between 2014 and 2016, analysis by awarding body CACHE shows the number of students finishing Level 3 childcare courses halved, from 35,275 to just 17,530. The government scrapped this policy in March 2017 after a cross-sector campaign – however, this U-turn will take time to impact on the supply of qualified staff, and is one piece in a complex jigsaw.

The research highlights several challenges, with childcare providers reporting a lack of applicants with:

  • the required skills (54%)
  • the required disposition (34%)
  • the required qualifications (36%)
  • the required experience (22%)

A general lack of interest in childcare as a career option (27%) was also flagged.

Pay rates, prospects for career progression and deep-rooted perceptions of childcare as a job for women all impact on the sector’s ability to recruit and retain staff. Detailed analysis of 3,930 nursery workers in the study shows just 5% are male.

The introduction of a national living wage in 2016 has seen average sector pay rates rise to £8.45 in summer 2017, a 9% increase since similar research was conducted by Ceeda in 2014.3 Pay continues, however, to lag behind other sectors. Official statistics report average hourly pay across all sectors of £15.984 in November 2016, pre-dating statutory rises in April 2017.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Jo Verrill, Managing Director of Ceeda, said:

“Recruitment difficulties are rife in the early years sector and show little sign of improving in the short term. It will take time to replace the fall-out in new entrants; meanwhile, wider market pressures are building.

Employment levels are at 75.1%5, their highest since comparable records began in 1971, mainly driven by increases in full-time female employment. We have also yet to feel the full impact of Brexit on labour supply, with an estimated 6% of childcare workers being EU Nationals.6

 To recruit and retain staff employers need to remain competitive. As the 30-hour childcare offer rolls out across the country, Government funding levels have an ever-increasing influence on what the sector can afford to pay its workers.”

Reaction from the early years sector

Neil Leitch, Chief Executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said:

“Difficulties in recruiting early years staff remains a huge obstacle to childcare providers considering offering the 30 hours. Put simply, if you don’t have enough staff, you can’t offer more places – or extended hours – to local families.

“Unfortunately, we are still feeling the effects of the government’s ill-thought-out qualification policy which required Level 3 childcare practitioners to have English and maths GCSEs, rather than functional skills – and while this has now rightly been scrapped, it’s going to take some time for the sector to recover from the impact of this on the workforce.

“Add to this the fact that, as a result of historic government underfunding, childcare remains a low-pay, low status career, and it’s no surprise that providers are struggling to attract new recruits. If the 30 hours is to have any chance of succeeding, we need to be able to attract and retain quality, experienced childcare staff – and this means paying them a fair wage for what is an absolutely vital educational role. Clearly, this can only happen with adequate funding and so until the government addresses this fundamental issue, this is likely to be yet another challenge facing an already-struggling sector.”

Janet King, Senior Subject Specialist in Childcare at Cache, said:

“The evolving 30 hours childcare policy is undoubtedly welcome however the workforce is challenged in terms of settings that can make this a viable business option. Funding levels need to ensure sustainability.

“Following the addition of functional skills as accepted maths and English qualifications announced in the workforce strategy, settings are reporting learners progressing to level three, however this will take time to address the recruitment issues caused by the previous GCSE requirement.  

“The statutory staffing requirements of the EYFS are stretching Level 2 practitioners and this is a two- fold issue. Accepting the serious implications of working beyond expectations at Level 2, it also stands in conflict in relation to research findings around high quality provision and staffing qualifications. Settings are being asked to do more with less. Real investment into implementation of the strategy is required for long term gain.




  1. Department for Education (2017) School Workforce in England: November 2016
  2. National Audit Office (2017) Reaching and developing the teaching workforce. HC 307 Session 2017-2019 12 September 2017
  3. Ceeda (2014) Counting he Cost. An analysis of delivery costs for funded early years education and childcare. 
  4. Nomis Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings - resident Analysis 2016
  5. ONS Statistical bulletin. UK Labour market: Augyst 2017. Estimates of employment, unemployment, economic inactivity and other employment-related statistics for the UK
  6. ONS: User requested data. Release date 8 July, The nationality of people in employment in the UK who are nursery workers, 2011 to 2015.