Staff shortages are fuelling workplace stress and lengthening waiting lists

Persistent recruitment and retention challenges are leading to increased workplace stress and longer waiting lists, finds the latest workforce research from independent sector analysts, Ceeda.

Depth research with 563 nurseries and pre-schools on the ‘About Early Years’ research panel took place during the period July to October 2019. Setting owners and managers gave detailed insight on their workforce, spanning 8,603 employees. The report, released today, also draws on the views of 2,605 early years staff taking part in Ceeda’s national employee engagement survey.

Despite in-year growth of 4% on level three qualification awards, recruitment challenges show no signs of easing. Over one in four settings were actively recruiting at the time of the survey (29%) for a total of 14,700 vacancies, up slightly on 2018 when 32% of settings were recruiting for 14,300 posts. Most vacancies were for level three staff (7,945 posts).

Staff shortages are impacting directly on nursery workers and families. Three quarters of providers with recruitment difficulties say they are resulting in a more stressful working environment (77%), up 21 percentage points on 2018.

Two fifths of settings with hard to fill vacancies (38%) say staff shortages are leading to longer waiting lists for childcare places, up from 20% in 2018. Almost a third say they are working below   their preferred staff-child ratios, within statutory limits (31%); up from 18% on 2018.

Recent announcements of a points-based immigration system for the UK are likely to further restrict labour supply. The survey found 2.75% of the early years workforce in non-domestic Ofsted registered provision are EU nationals, an estimated, 9,150 staff. London has the greatest reliance on EU nationals at 8.9% of all employees, followed by the South East at 2.7%.

From January 2021 skilled workers qualified to a minimum of level three (A level or equivalent), will require a job offer and minimum salary of £25,600, or £20,480 for specific shortage occupations. Early years roles are not on the current Shortage Occupation List. With average sector pay of £9.00 per hour for level three qualified staff at April 2019, salaries would need to increase by 17.3% to meet the lower threshold for designated skill-shortage occupations, and by 46.7% to reach the general earnings threshold.

Recruitment challenges continue to inflate operating costs, placing upward pressure on pay in settings with hard to fill posts (50%) as well as increasing their recruitment spend (53%). These added financial burdens come at a time when the sector is facing a forecast funding deficit of £824 million in 2020/21, based on modest assessments of pay inflation. Ceeda will be conducting new fieldwork this spring to establish the true impact of above inflation rises to the National Living Wage and National Minimum Wage rates.  


Staff turnover shows no change on the 2018 average of 15%, and whilst pay looms large in the list of drivers, it is not the only factor. Those actively job-hunting are also seeking better career progression (65%) and greater freedom to use their initiative (57%) and potential to the full (55%).

A need for greater recognition and understanding of sector contribution is clear. Whilst 98% of setting owners and managers agree with the statement: ‘I view myself as a professional worker,’ over two-thirds disagree that the Government (70%) and general public (67%) share the same view.

“It is important to change the view that the government and people in general have about early years teachers and practitioners.  I thought that by introducing a degree in early years and a further professional/teacher status (it) would increase the overview and understanding of the profession, but it did not work in that way. It is unbelievable that the people educating, caring and bringing up our future generations are considered so poorly, both in recognition and in pay." Survey respondent. Click the image to read all comments from owners and managers on how to improve the status and rewards of early years careers.  


Could a professional body boost sector status and rewards? Two thirds of setting owners and managers think so (64%), whilst 30% are unsure and 6% reject the idea.

Commenting on the findings Dr Jo Verrill, managing director at Ceeda said:

“Sadly these latest findings are all too familiar. The case for change has long been made, and early years staff understandably want to see a shift from evidence to action.

“There is a clear, evidenced, need for a step-change in the status and rewards of early years careers. This will require radical change in the way people think about and value early education, matched by commensurate levels of public sector investment.  

“We are delighted to be part of the recently launched Early Years Workforce Commission, which will focus on delivering a workforce strategy that can achieve lasting change.”  

Sector reaction

Neil Leitch, chief executive at the Early Years Alliance, said: 

“Early years practitioners play a vital role in children’s development and learning so while the news that settings are struggling to recruit suitable staff will come as no surprise to anyone working in the sector, these figures still make for stark reading.

“Such challenges not only put the current workforce under growing pressure, but it also increase recruitment costs and restrict business growth at a time when the sector is already struggling with stagnant funding rates and rising costs elsewhere.

“Early years practitioners are dedicated and passionate about their work, and their wages should reflect the important role that they play - but this is something that will only be possible with an increase in funding rates. As such, discussions about pay, recruitment and retention cannot be held in isolation, but rather, must form part of the wider debate about the need for far greater investment into the early years sector, both now and in the long-term."

 The full research report can be downloaded free HERE

Register for our news bulletins to stay in touch with all the latest sector analysis.