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The early years workforce: underpaid, overworked and undervalued

A young baby fits wooden shapes into grooves on a board
Published: 5 Aug 2020

Our new report – The stability of the early years workforce in England – shows that the 280,000 people who look after and educate our children are at risk of becoming our forgotten key workers.

The first five years of a child’s life are critical to their future development – this is also the time when stark gaps often first appear between children from poorer and more affluent families. Key to closing these gaps are nursery workers and child minders, but our report reveals an unstable workforce, without which quality provision is harder to achieve.

The research does show that many workers are passionate about their jobs and report higher levels of happiness than the total working population. But low wages, work demands and considerable amounts of paperwork, often lead to burnout and an early exit – more than one in six leave within a year. And recent studies estimate turnover rates to be between 11% and 15%.

Over 95% of the workforce are women and 40% are younger than 30.

11% of full-time report working more than 42 hours per week (vs 6% for the wider female workforce) – and workers in the private sector are likely to be working longer hours than their peers.

The average wage in the early years workforce is £7.42/ hour, well below the minimum wage and the average pay of £11.37/ hour across the female workforce. Which begs the question – are we valuing the early years workforce as much as we should? Many are struggling to meet their living costs and move jobs to secure even the smallest wage increase or leave the sector entirely in search of a better salary.

“The early years workforce is vital in helping to narrow the development gaps between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and privileged ones” said Steven Cooper, interim co-chair of the Social Mobility Commission and CEO of C. Hoare & Co. “We must do everything we can to ensure that childminders and nursery workers are valued more by ensuring we pay them a decent wage, give them a proper career structure and ensure their workload is reasonable.”

While this research was conducted before the outbreak of COVID-19, we do know that many early years workers have been furloughed and are finding it even harder to get by without extra support. Before the crisis hit, around 45% of childcare workers claimed state benefits or tax credits – well above the average for the general female workforce.

Our recommendation is for a comprehensive strategy that includes a clear training pathway, from apprentice to primary school head, and for improved careers advice – to make sure potential applicants have an accurate picture of what the job entails in a bid to improve job retention. And in the short term, Government funding should be increased, to match rising operational costs due to inflation and National Minimum Wage increases.

Read the full report here


Past research:

The choices people make in terms of moving regions are crucial as they have a direct impact on job prospects and earnings. Our last report – Moving out to move on: Understanding the link between migration and disadvantage – investigates the relationship between migration within Great Britain and social mobility. You can read our blog highlighting the key findings here.