26th March 2021

The Covid-19 pandemic and the early years workforce: November-February findings

Nurseries, pre-schools, and other early years settings have been heavily reliant on the government’s Coronavirus Job Retention scheme during the height of the winter lockdown, a new report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) finds.

The report, which looks at how early years settings in England, Scotland and Wales were impacted by the pandemic during the winter months, shows that a lack of demand for early years education from families and financial instability in the sector led to a large proportion of staff being placed on the furlough scheme.

Overall, up to around 4 in 10 (38%) early years staff were placed on full or part-time furlough between the months of November and February – nearly four times more than the sector had previously projected for this period (10%).

Staff with the lowest qualification levels bore the brunt of disruption to the early years workforce, as they were more likely to be placed on full-time furlough. These staff are also at greater risk of having their hours reduced or being made redundant, with settings reporting that they consider staff qualifications and experience when making changes to their workforce.

The new survey, which covers almost 800 private, voluntary, and independent (PVI) early years settings representing over 15,000 staff, also reveals findings on the scale of closures in the sector during the peak of the second wave of the virus.

As many as three-quarters (72%) of settings in England and Wales were forced into full or partial closures over the last few months, with children’s overall attendance around a quarter less than it was in the year before this, prior to the pandemic.

With lockdowns easing and demand from families for early years places set to increase again, researchers warn that without extra government support, many settings could struggle to meet these pressures, which in turn could compromise the quality of children’s early education.


You can download the full report here.


Key findings


The early years sector is heavily reliant on the furlough scheme

  • Overall, up to 38% of early years staff were on furlough between November 2020 and February 2021, with an average of 11% of staff placed on full-time furlough and 27% on part-time furlough. 38% represents a maximum figure, as some settings could have placed workers on both full-time and part-time furlough during the survey period.
  • Official monthly figures for the UK population as a whole show that 13% of the total workforce were on furlough in November and December, while 16% were in January.
  • The proportion of workers on furlough was also far greater than anticipated: in a previous survey, the sector expected just 10% of staff to be on the scheme over this period (3% on full time furlough and 7% on part-time furlough).
  • It is likely that the increased use of furlough in the early years may have led to fewer redundancies in the sector during this period: on average, settings saw zero redundancies in their workforce.


The vast majority of early years settings saw closures during the winter lockdown

  • In England and Wales, 72% of early years settings have had to close fully or partially between November and February.
  • The average number of children attending settings in these two countries was 28% lower than the previous (pre-pandemic) year.
  • In Scotland, settings were asked to remain open only for vulnerable children and children of key workers during the national lockdown in early 2021, resulting in 84% of settings remaining open.


The impact of closures on staff

  • The number of overall staff in the workforce remained largely stable over the period between November and February, but there was significant variation between this: 31% of settings saw no change in the total number of staff they employed between November and February, while 54% had seen a rise and 15% had seen a fall.
  • Staff with lower qualifications were more likely than other staff to have been placed on full-time furlough: 12% of the least-qualified staff were placed on full-time furlough, compared to 5% of the most qualified staff (those with a Level 6 qualification).
  • Those in between on Level 3 qualifications, who are officially counted in minimum staff-to-child ratios, which settings must maintain, were also much more likely to be on full-time furlough – 10% of such staff were over this period.
  • This suggests that such staff are continuing to experience some of the most negative effects of the pandemic, such as reduced job security and income.