Blog post

Staffing crisis in nurseries threatens high quality childcare

In the light of a recent survey by the National Day Nurseries Association, Dr Ruby Oates, former Associate Professor Childhood in the Centre for Educational Research and Innovation at the University of Derby, looks at what the staffing crisis in nurseries means for the sector.

By Ruby Oates - 29 March 2018

As someone who has been involved in training and educating the early childhood workforce over many years, it is disappointing to read the latest results from the recently published National Day Nurseries Association’s (NDNA) 2017/18 Workforce Survey.

It reports a downward trend in the qualifications of the workforce and employers continuing to struggle to retain practitioners; this is at a time when childcare outside the home is in even greater demand.

Practitioners’ passion for the role

The survey notes that 69 percent of level 3 childcare practitioners leaving the sector are doing so because they have lost their passion for working in the early years due to policy and sector changes. The NDNA’s chief executive says that while its members show passion and commitment to providing excellent early education and care, nurseries are struggling to recruit and retain qualified staff.

The word ‘passion’ is one I’ve heard many experienced practitioners use when conducting research with them about their experiences in this workforce. Practitioners use the word to describe how they feel about their work – ‘I feel so passionate about my job and the children I work with’ is a refrain I’ve heard many times over the years.

Practitioners tell me about the willing sacrifices they make for the children in their care – the physical and emotional labour they put into their work, how they often purchase resources out of their own pocket, particularly when working in the voluntary sector, and work additional hours without pay. It is worth remembering too that this is not a well-paid workforce, with hourly rates not much more than the National Minimum Wage which is set to increase from next month.

Professionalising the workforce

This workforce cares for and educates very young children who are at a pivotal developmental stage (just think about the physical, cognitive, social and emotional changes that occur from birth to three years of age) and while some improvements have been achieved over recent years, the qualifications base of this workforce remains low and the value given to the work is often unacknowledged.

Why is it that such an important workforce has failed to professionalise in the way that others have? To answer this question, we have to look back at how childcare outside the home has emerged in this country, with the bulk of it being provided by private companies who must make a profit in order to survive in a competitive market economy.

There have been attempts over recent years to professionalise this workforce but approaches have been haphazard, confusing and inconsistent, resulting in practitioners becoming frustrated at the frequent changes in childcare qualifications and a lack of recognition and status given to working with very young children.

A very recent concern is the decline in continued professional development opportunities to enable practitioners to keep their practice up-to-date, on safeguarding measures for example, as employers and local authorities have insufficient budgets to support such professional development.

Retaining skills in the sector

I am very proud of our Early Childhood Studies graduates, more so when I hear about the important and valuable work they do post-graduation, but it saddens me that early childhood specialists are leaving the sector because the pay and conditions do not align with the importance and responsibilities of the work.

We must retain these skilled, knowledgeable and creative people – caring for and educating young children is one of the most important roles in society, providing our youngest members with important foundations on which to flourish and achieve their full potential.

Our children deserve the best qualified staff and we need to be able to attract talented people into this workforce because research shows that having highly qualified staff leads to better outcomes and experiences for children.

Learning from other countries

We could learn from countries who place a higher regard on working with young children and the specialist knowledge, pedagogy and skills necessary for such work. For example, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Finland all share a tradition of a degree-level qualified early childhood education and care workforce, each with their own pedagogical differences, of course.

Our close neighbour Scotland is set to increase its nursery staff numbers in disadvantaged areas this year, bringing an extra 435 Childhood Practice graduates into settings.

Are you in the sector? Please comment below to share your experiences – we’d love to hear from you.

Dr Ruby Oates is the lead editor of the fully updated second edition of Early Childhood Studies: Principles and Practice, which offers a comprehensive, accessible yet rigorous introduction to the study of Early Childhood at both foundation and degree level. Addressing both care and education in the early years, the book considers a range of multi-disciplinary aspects of early childhood including health, social, educational, psychological and sociological perspectives.

For further information contact the Corporate Communications team at or call 01332 593953.

About the author

Ruby Oates
Former Associate Professor of Childhood Studies

Ruby is a former associate professor of Chilldhood studies at the University of Derby's Centre for Educational Research and Innovation. Her research interests include the professionalisation of the early childhood education and care workforce and practitioners' experiences of it.