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How can we overcome the challenges facing early years practitioners and change the future of childcare?

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David Wright: Attract, Recruit, Retain and Develop or Retain, Develop, Attract and Recruit? 

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It is generally agreed that we are currently facing a crisis in our Early Years workforce numbers in England. The statistics are alarming. As of 2021 there were estimated to be around 30 thousand fewer people working in childcare professions in the United Kingdom than in the previous year, according to Statista.com. The Times (16/06/2022) reported 442 nursery closures in the year to March 2021. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that this trend not only continues but is accelerating when we consider the nationwide dearth of both qualified and unqualified candidates applying for an increasing number of job adverts in the sector. Providers are having to close sessions, rooms and even settings due to their inability to fill vacancies and consequently continue to meet the statutory staffing level requirements. 

The pandemic impact

The challenges have developed over many years but have also been exacerbated by the pandemic and other global job market factors including Brexit. It appears many people have taken the opportunity to reflect and re-evaluate their lives. For some, it seems, the cost-benefit analysis of continuing to work in the UK Early Years sector, has weighed on the side of disadvantage – too little pay for too much responsibility and stress with poor status and recognition. Consequently, we are witnessing an exodus of childminders, teachers, managers, and owners who take with them precious expertise, experience and relationships with families and communities built up over many years. 

What changes are needed?

Surely it is better to hold onto our existing precious resource if we possibly can. This is not easy in competition with other sectors able to offer more money and possibly less hours and more flexible work patterns and with less responsibility. The first and most obvious questions are –  

  • Why do team members stay with us? 
  • What are the reasons people leave?            

Have we asked them?  In terms of retention and attracting others, knowing what it is that team loyalty is based on, provides us with useful data that can inform our actions. The main reasons cited for employees staying in their job are common across industry sectors. 

The following ‘top 10’ list from greatgame.com is a useful checklist to reflect on our provision: 

Great employees stay because they – 

  • believe they are a part of something special  
  • feel their work has purpose and meaning 
  • believe their personal contribution makes a difference 
  • feel recognised and respected 
  • want to work alongside gifted and talented co-workers
  • are encouraged and supported to achieve their full potential
  • trust in the leadership
  • are emotionally invested in their work and organisation
  • subscribe to the culture
  • feel they receive fair compensation.

Perhaps the last of these statements is the most difficult for us to tackle but the key word here is ‘fair’. Given financial constraints, do our team members recognise equity and fairness in our pay structure? Are the reasons for pay differentials clearly communicated and applied? If finances are a challenge – which they are for most providers, are there other ways of rewarding and recognising our staff team, perhaps additional leave, flexible hours etc? Reviewing the rest of this list, these are good principles for how we can ensure the leadership at all levels within our organisation; the messages we communicate; and the day-to-day support for our teams, meet their needs. Many of them are zero to low cost – e.g., recognising and respecting everyone; reminding them that their work has purpose and meaning. If these actions can make the difference between our best people staying or leaving, would we not invest our time and effort into doing them? I am always surprised how often people tell me they feel undervalued, un-thanked and taken for granted in their place of work. How difficult is it for us as leaders to ensure gratitude and appreciation for our team members is expressed – to all of them, at regular intervals? It matters.   

These findings can best be summarised as, people stay where they feel recognised, valuable and treated as human beings. The problem with a ‘Human Resources’ approach to staffing is in the name itself. Once our policies, procedures and operational interactions view people as resource, we have immediately impersonalised the work culture. I suggest that no one wants to be thought of or managed as resource. We should never forget that we are all human beings with emotional and physiological needs. It seems obvious that compassionate leadership satisfies these needs first and foremost by relating to everyone as an equal, trying to understand what it feels like to be on the other side of this relationship.  

First impressions matter

This applies at every stage of a career, including day one. Are our inductions process focused and frankly tedious? How many new staff members are thrown in at the deep end and left to their own devices because we are busy? I have seen this happen and guess what? – people don’t stay. Why are we surprised?  What if the aim of the first day at work was to make our newest people want to come back again tomorrow, and the day after that? What might that look like? What if we spent the time getting to know that individual as a person? What if we were able to free up a mentor for the morning to enable them to start to build a relationship – with cake and coffee? What if our culture was to look out for the newest person and check in with them to make sure they feel welcome, safe, happy and reassured? What if our aim was to ensure everyone has a special friend in our team? What if we trusted them with their own significant area of responsibility (with support), from day one? First impressions matter. 

A focus on retention and development 

To highlight another item from this list – 

encouraged and supported to achieve their full potential” – How do our supervisions and appraisals address individuals’ development aspirations? Do we demonstrate trustworthy leadership in delivering on promises to support and provide learning opportunities? Do we know what each person aspires to or do we assume they are happy to just keep showing up each day? Are we proactive in trying to understand their wants and in providing opportunities for these to be fulfilled. There are many ways to enable development opportunities. Again, these do not have to cost – what free online resources can we discover? How can we use our team members to support and grow one another by sharing their expertise or giving them opportunities to mentor, teach and model to less experienced staff?            

Staff surveys, exit and onboarding interviews are great sources of information. They can tell us what we do well and where we can improve. We need to ask and we need to be open to challenge and change in response. In shaping our offer to prospective applicants for our vacancies, we need to attract them to us – Why should I come and work with your organisation and your team – as opposed to a competitor? If we know what makes people stay and why they leave, we need to shape our marketing around these. We need to ensure we are a preferred employer because we are authentic – we do what we say we do. Our best advocates should be our team – “Come and work at the best company, I wouldn’t work anywhere else!” Can our teams say this of us? If not, what do we need to change so they do? And how do our job adverts and our recruitment process reflect these values? How can we adapt job roles to make them more attractive – flexible hours, job-shares, considering transferable skills rather than qualifications? Does the wording in our adverts reflect this? Where are we advertising and who are we targeting? Are we using our network – word of mouth from our existing and previous team members, to promote our settings; to publicise opportunities; and to attract and recruit new staff? If what we are currently doing is costing us money and still not working, then we must consider all possible options.     

The same principles apply to “growing our own” team members, supporting apprenticeships and unqualified, inexperienced individuals. Arguably we need to apply the principles more rigorously for someone straight out of school or college who is unfamiliar with the world of work. We can all remember how daunting it is to start a new job. How do we make sure we attract the best people, ensure them a great start and support their development journey? Which items out of the top 10 list do we need to focus attention on, in order to keep them?     

A people sector  

Early Years care and education is a people sector. We thrive and succeed based on the quality of our people. And people need to feel a sense of belonging. A focus on retention and development not only helps to keep our existing staff, but it also makes us an attractive proposition for potential candidates. We may not be able to pay more right now but we can create and maintain a great place to work where team members feel they belong, want to stay and which others are interested in joining.     

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Article written by David Wright

David Wright is a former owner and now an ambassador for Paint Pots Nurseries in Southampton. He has 18 years' experience as an Early Years Teacher. He is the national representative for England to the World Forum on Early Childhood Education (ECE) and the global lead for their Men in ECE working group. David is an author, broadcaster, commentator, presenter, and international conference speaker on Early Years. He is an advisor to the Early Years sector council of the National Association of Head Teachers and a member of the leadership team of the Southeast Region of the Ofsted Big Conversation. He is the founder of Families First Southampton, a charity supporting families in need. He is the chair of trustees of New Life Home Trust UK CIO, a charity that supports the rescue of abandoned babies in Kenya. David is a passionate advocate for the rights of all children. He can be found on Twitter as @Mr_Paintpots.

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Attract, Recruit, Retain and Develop or Retain, Develop, Attract and Recruit? 

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