17th January 2020

Early years workforce development in England: Key ingredients and missed opportunities

A new report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, examines how the government can develop the early years workforce in England, in order to improve the quality of provision.  

Early years education can play a critical role in a child’s life outcomes. Research shows that supporting and developing the early years workforce is central to delivering high quality provision for families.

This study analyses the impact of major government policies affecting the sector over the past 15 years. This includes:

  • the Graduate Leader Fund (2007-2011), which provided financial incentives to early years providers to recruit graduates;
  • the minimum GCSE grade requirement for workers (2014-2017), whereby key staff members were required to have at least a grade C in GCSE English and maths;
  • the early years entitlement expansion for two-year-olds (2014-present), which provided more disadvantaged families with 15 hours of funded early years education, and
  • the early years entitlement expansion for three- and four-year-olds (2017-present), which provided working families with 30 hours of funded early years education.

The report then considers the early years education offer of the current government, and whether its policies are likely to support the workforce and high-quality provision.

You can download the full report here.

Key findings


Which policy interventions have been most successful in developing the early years workforce?

Examining four major early years policies spanning nearly 15 years, our research finds that:

  • There is little evidence that more recent government policies from 2014 have improved workforce qualifications.    
  • The expansion of entitlements was accompanied by an increase in the total number of early years workers, from 272,900 workers in 2014 to 298,500 workers in 2018. Despite this rise in numbers among the workforce, qualification levels over this period failed to improve.
  • The introduction of the minimum GCSE grade requirement for key staff created difficulties in attracting highly qualified workers to the sector, and hindered providers’ ability to develop early years professionals.

One successful policy was the Graduate Leader Fund (2007-2011), which demonstrated a clear, positive effect on the qualifications of the early years workforce:

  • Between 2007 and 2011, when funding for the Graduate Leader Fund was ring-fenced, the number of early years workers with a bachelor’s degree or equivalent increased considerably, by 76%, from 16,500 workers to 29,100 workers.
  • The number of early years workers with a master’s degree or equivalent also increased, by 13% from 5,200 workers to 5,900 workers.
  • Qualification levels more broadly also increased: the number of workers with a diploma in higher education increased by 7% (from 16,200 to 17,300), while those with an NVQ level 3 or equivalent increased by 38% (from 86,100 to 118,800).
  • However, between 2013 and 2018, after funding was no longer ring-fenced, qualifications failed to improve: rates for some qualifications fell, while others remained static.
  • The Graduate Leader Fund had a number of characteristics of success lacking in other policies: it was evidence-based, set within a long-term workforce strategy (the Ten Years Strategy for Childcare), sufficiently funded and provided strong incentives to attract highly qualified staff.


Are early years workforce policies of the current government on the right track?

  • The present government lacks a long-term strategy to develop the early years workforce – which is central to improving the quality of early years education and supporting the outcomes of the most disadvantaged children.
  • The government should renew its commitment to improving the skills of the workforce and establish a long-term vision for developing the sector for the new decade. It should revive its Early Years Workforce Strategy, which provided an overarching framework for policy development, early years programmes and funding.
  • Information on the career paths and qualifications of early years workers in England is highly fragmented and often inaccessible. To support the development of the workforce the government should establish an online data collection system for all early years workers, based on a similar model in the United States. This would give practitioners, providers, researchers and policymakers access to information regarding worker qualifications, skills, career paths and training.




This research is supported by a grant from the Nuffield Foundation
. The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.

Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org