“For every pound invested in a child’s early years, we would need to invest £7 during their adolescence to make the same impact”Shannon Pite, Communications and External Affairs Director of the Early Years Alliance
28 February 2023
Who cares? We are failing our early years workforce
The early years workforce is almost exclusively female – when addressing the childcare crisis, it's imperative that these women are not forgotten
Shannon Pite is the Communications and External Affairs Director of the Early Years Alliance
This essay is taken from our new edition of Essays on Equality: The politics of childcare. Read the full collection here.
Essays on Equality: The politics of childcare
Read the essays
“The sector is in a dire situation. The employees are stressed, the government undervalues the role and there is little sunshine on the horizon. It’s my life and passion, but I’m feeling beaten."
Those were the words of one early years professional in response to an Early Years Alliance survey, conducted in October 2021, on why so many early educators are choosing to leave the workforce.
They are words that perfectly sum up the general feelings of despondency, exasperation and frustration of a sector that has long been overlooked and undervalued by government. And in the time since that survey was undertaken, things have arguably only gotten worse.
There is a wealth of research that shows just how critical the first five years of life are. For every pound invested in a child’s early years, we would need to invest £7 during their adolescence to make the same impact – and for each pound spent, the taxpayer gets a £13 return on investment. And yet for many years now, the early years sector and the professionals that work within it have been viewed and treated as little more than babysitters.
During the 2022 Autumn Statement, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt rightly stated that “providing our children with a good education is not just an economic mission; it’s a moral mission”. However, the comments – and education investment announcements – that followed did not contain a single reference to the early years.
For those of us working with or in the sector, this glaring omission came as little surprise. All too often in the UK, early years provision is seen almost entirely as “childcare”, and early years settings merely as places for young children to go to be “looked after” or “watched” until pick-up time.
But early educators do so much more than this. They are education professionals who support learning during the single most critical period of brain development. They are responsible for everything from identifying when a young child has additional needs and knowing what steps to take to support them, to spotting and acting on signs of abuse or neglect and knowing which agencies to liaise with to ensure families get the help they need.
Is it any wonder that year upon year of being dismissed by those in power is starting to take its toll?
“Year upon year of being dismissed by those in power is starting to take its toll”Shannon Pite, Communications and External Affairs Director of the Early Years Alliance
When it comes to the early years staffing crisis, much is often made of the low wages in the sector – and for good reason. A 2020 report by the Social Mobility Commission found that the average hourly wage across the early years workforce in England – which is 97 per cent female – was just £7.42 per hour, compared to an average pay across the female workforce of £11.37.
Worse still, a 2019 investigation by Nursery World magazine found that 14 per cent of those working in the sector were living in relative poverty, while research into the early years workforce published by the Education Policy Institute in 2019 found that, at the time, 45 per cent claimed state benefits or tax credits.
And yet, when the Alliance asked those actively considering leaving the early years – around a third of respondents to our October 2021 survey – why this was, the most common reason wasn’t pay (though this was cited by 57 per cent of respondents); It was being undervalued by government.
And the government’s current approach to early years policy is only likely to make an already dire situation even worse. Proposals to increase the number of two-year-olds per adult in early years settings from four to five risk increasing the pressure on an already overburdened workforce for little to no gain, and further damaging morale within the sector.
In fact, in a survey of over 9,000 early years professionals carried out by the Alliance in April 2022, 75 per cent of those who would have no control over the decision on whether or not to relax ratios in their workplace said that they would leave their setting if ratios were relaxed there.
As one respondent put it: “I won’t be involved in a sector that doesn’t value its workforce and the wellbeing of the children, all for money”.
Many – rightly – argue that the early years crisis is a gendered crisis. It is women who are forced to reduce their hours or leave their jobs because they cannot justify returning to work as a result of sky-high early years costs. It is women who miss out on promotions because they cannot balance increased responsibilities at work and the need to care for their children. And it is women who all too often are forced to make the incredibly difficult decision not to have a child or children because they simply cannot afford the early years costs that doing so would entail.
But it is also almost exclusively women who make up the early years workforce – and if we are going to argue that tackling the ongoing early years crisis is a gendered issue, then it is vital that these women are not forgotten.
Without these professionals, there is no early years sector. The sooner the government wakes up to this fact, the better.