31st May 2022 All Posts Leadership & Management

Is there a recruitment or a retention crisis in the early years?

Jamel Campbell Recruitment & Retention

Guest blog authored by early years educator, Jamel Campbell, for publication on Connect Childcare.*


I’ve been in the early years for over 20 years, and I’ve seen many changes and brilliant breakthroughs, but a recurring issue seems to be happening around recruitment.

I wrote an article in 2020 for Optimus Ed magazine about this very topic.


In the piece, I state that “recruitment isn’t the main issue with staffing, it’s retention.”

And the sad fact is that the story remains unchanged.


In essence, we are not holding on to staff. Of course, the pressures of the role remain a factor but with the new framework and lessening of paperwork that came into play September 2021, shouldn’t the pressures have lowered somewhat?


In truth, the demands of the job still remain the same even if the paperwork has decreased. And the current retention challenge facing the sector is something being discussed and debated by many professionals across the industry. Staff turnovers are at an all-time high, and Julian Grenier stated in his article for TES “early years teachers are under pressure, we will lose many in 2022.”


This is happening right now. But why?


Longstanding pressures


I’ve spoken to many settings across the country and the answers have all been similar – echoing the theme that on top of the existing pressure, Covid and the numerous lockdown periods changed the way they viewed the profession.


They have felt undervalued, expendable, unsafe, lost, demotivated, and underpaid – the latter of which has been a well-documented ongoing factor sector-wide for many years.


From my perspective, during lockdown our sector was definitely not being held in the same regard as the primary and secondary sector and didn’t get the same level of support from the Government.


The Prime Minister said, “nurseries had to stay open so key workers could work.” But, are early years educators not key workers themselves?


Staying open had a dramatic knock-on effect, with numerous nursery settings having to furlough some staff and downsize their teams, or completely close because of spikes in staff illnesses and lower occupancies due to child illness. Additionally, some nurseries had to freeze their fees due to a number of parents keeping their little ones at home. This not only affected ratios but financial turnover too.


Pandemic pressures and difficult conversations 

The pandemic undoubtedly threw up additional pressures for early years professionals and tough conversations about Covid and the rise in illnesses had a huge knock-on effect on all settings, as a result.


Some practitioners shared that they didn’t feel safe in the setting because they had to be in contact with their colleagues and the children, so they preferred to work at home.


Positive cases saw whole departments being closed, and they were eventually divided into bubbles to help stop the spread of the virus and the children and staff having to self-isolate. However, the entire situation made many individuals anxious because any symptoms that may have been associated with a ‘common’ illness prior to the pandemic, were no longer distinguishable. 


As well as regular testing and implementing increased hygiene practices within settings, staff were having uncomfortable conversations about the vaccine – sometimes causing internal divisions.


In addition, some settings didn’t pay their staff sick pay if they contracted Covid and they didn’t have the vaccine. And due to this, many qualified employees started to look elsewhere for work – in some instances, leaving the sector entirely.


The end-result forced many settings to have to appoint more agency staff and apprentices. 


Furthermore, when the guidance about self-isolation became relaxed, each day within settings became an unknown – even when nursery workers had no symptoms, they could still be positive.


Causing a domino effect


During this time, staff members told me that they felt obligated to come in and support the setting even when they were ill, that they had to work longer shifts because of staff shortages, and that they had to be moved round rooms and classes to give support, due to a lack of qualified staff.


This made me think of the domino effect that I wrote about in my article about retention and how it applies now. 


Due to long hours and heavy workloads in recent times, I’ve noticed a high volume of sick leave. And when this happens, it puts pressure on the remaining members of staff who have to take over the workload of their absent colleagues.


This not only causes additional stress and strain on the remaining personnel, but it can also cause children to feel unsettled because staffing isn’t consistent. 


The impact of being under-resourced can also contribute greatly to lowering morale and motivation – resulting in high numbers of staff absences and, in some cases, workers handing in their resignation or being given support notices because of a drop in their quality of work.


The recruitment challenge


Trying to fill the staffing void has become a tricky storm for nurseries to navigate – with agency staff being very expensive and it being incredibly difficult to find quality employees, and ones which make it through the probation period.


Many educators are leaving the sector before they’ve even finished their studies, due to 

the stress of the job.


So, what can settings do to help prevent this from happening?


Five top retention tips for nurseries


  1. Create a safe space for staff to express their concerns and create an action plan with reasonable and practical measures to give them support.

  2. Provide an overall pay rise, followed by an annual performance-based pay review – coupled with appraisals. This gives members of staff targets and goals to work towards.

  3.  Offer substantial breaks. Some settings may only give staff 30–45-minute breaks, which is not sufficient – especially if they are working a typically long day, such as 7:30am-6:30pm. Giving staff a full hour or a 45-minute break for lunch and a 15-minute rest at the end of the day helps to break this up.

  4. Provide all staff with clear career pathways, CPD, and/or training timetables. This shows that you want to support their development and progression. Also, you could encourage them to take on new responsibilities and step up within your setting, in addition to providing unqualified staff with apprenticeship opportunities internally or externally.

  5.  Don’t recruit staff just to fill the void. Qualified or not, quality and commitment is what you should be always looking for. The personnel that are going to benefit your setting are those looking to be employed for a long period of time.


Ultimately, retention is the key to balancing the recruitment crisis we face in the early years. And supporting the wellbeing of your team and paying them what they deserve are the first steps in helping to maintain retention.

*This article is an expression of my opinion, which is based on what I’ve read, discussed, witnessed, and written about already. I appreciate that while some people will agree with me, others will not. However, in either scenario, I hope that it will open up a discussion on how we can better our practice and improve retention across the sector – Jamel Campbell.


Guest Blog: Jamel C Campbell

Author bio:

Jamel C Campbell is an Early year Educator, Ey Consultant, radio/ tv personality, storyteller and Children’s Author. He has been in the Early years and education industry for over 20 years plus. Early years is his speciality but he has worked in youth clubs, schools, been a mentor too many and supported children with SEND. Jamel is one of the U.k’s Men in the Early Years champions/ ambassadors. He has been featured in the media due to extensive experience and knowledge of the Early years and quirky but effective practice. He has stood on numerous platforms and prestigious establishments as a Keynote speaker; St Mary’s University, University of East London, Bath University to name a few. He has written articles for local newspaper the (Catford Chronicle) and for well known education and Early year’s magazines such as; (Optimus education) TES, Famly, FSF/Tapestry and (Early years well-being) magazine. Jamel has featured on CBeebies “Tiny happy people ” as an Early years advisor which has been backed by the Duchess of Cambridge and the BBC’s Bitesize giving transition tips to parents and professionals alike. He has collaborated with many well respected Ey professionals and consultants. He is a brilliant storyteller and has conducted story telling sessions in local schools and partnered with huge establishments like The Tate to tell stories.

Jamel is passionate about the early years, he stresses the importance of having men in the early years and the importance of having a balanced diverse inclusive workforce, curriculum and pedagogy. He has partnered with MITEY (Men in the Early years) which is associated with the Fatherhood Institute and has assisted L.E.Y.F with Extensive research About the effect of having men as part of the Early years workforce.

He offers training workshops for EY teams and settings based around approaches to Practice, representation (anti-racist practice) and staff wellbeing.

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Marketing Lead at Connect Childcare