21st July 2021

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

Covid isolation drove up to four in every ten early years settings to close across England, Wales and Scotland during the spring, a new report from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) reveals.

The survey, which is the final report from a year-long research project investigating the impact of the pandemic on the early years, examines the experiences of smaller early years settings, which make up the vast majority of settings in Great Britain. 

As well as dealing with closures – of which the majority were caused by staff or child isolation – nurseries, pre-schools, and other small private, voluntary and independent early years settings have had to contend with significant instability in the workforce, with a large proportion of staff still being furloughed.

Up to a quarter of the 5,000 early years staff covered in the survey were placed on furlough between the months of February and May, with those on lower qualifications more likely to be placed on the government scheme. Many staff are still expected to remain on furlough over the summer as the scheme’s termination approaches in September.

The report also finds that early years settings have seen a high turnover of staff, with as many as 6% of the workforce voluntarily terminating their contracts over the spring – with job stress and low pay cited as reasons for quitting.

Growing workforce instability has been met with uncertainty over demand for children’s early years places, with the pandemic continuing to lead to unpredictability around attendance levels. In England and Wales, attendance of children in settings over the spring was down by 8% and 6% respectively, compared to a pre-pandemic year – but was up in Scotland by 7%.

Volatility with both attendance rates and staffing has created financial concerns for smaller settings in particular, with researchers warning that rising infection rates and increased isolation are likely to leave the sector in a “highly precarious” state.

For those settings that are able to navigate this period, they are likely to then be met with major recruitment shortfalls when parental demand for places quickly returns in the future.

The EPI and NDNA report also reveals new findings on the training on offer for those staff who have remained in the sector, which is often shown to be inadequate. As many as 42% settings report that training for supporting children’s speech and language was unavailable – a concern given the crucial role of communication and language skills in child outcomes, and given growing fears that the pandemic may have stifled children’s development in this area.


You can download the full report here


Key findings


Up to four in ten early years settings closed between February and May this year

  • Survey findings from 344 early years settings across England, Wales and Scotland show that 25% of settings had to partially close between the months of February and May, while 12% of settings were forced to fully close. This means that in total, around up to four in ten (37%) settings faced closures over the spring period.
  • When asked the reasons for closures, a majority of early years settings (53%) cited staff members or children self-isolating, 15% cited insufficient demand for places, while the remainder cited other reasons.
  • It is highly likely that increased isolation from rising infections will contribute towards further closures over the summer period. Some settings already reported that the notification of cases of a positive Covid test doubled between the last week of May and the first week of June.

The early years sector is still heavily reliant on the furlough scheme

  • 15% of early years staff where placed on part-time furlough over the spring, while 8% were placed on full-time furlough, totalling up to a quarter (23%) of all staff. This is higher than the sector had anticipated for this period. 
  • Early years workers with the lowest qualifications were most likely to be placed on the government scheme: staff with Level 3 qualifications and with no qualifications saw furlough rates of 23% and 22% respectively. 20% of staff with Level 4 or 5 qualifications were furloughed, while 16% of staff Level 6 qualifications were.
  • Many staff are likely to remain on the scheme in the period leading up to its termination on September 30 – though settings are expected to reduce the total number of staff on furlough over the summer, to up to 8%.

Staff turnover in the early years sector is high

  • Over the spring, around 6% of staff voluntarily terminated their contract. Uncertainty and stress over their jobs, disillusionment, and the prospect of higher pay in competing occupations, were among some of the reasons given by survey respondents.
  • On average, settings reported employing 2% fewer staff in May than they had in March, while 1% of staff were made redundant over the spring period.
  • Settings reported being far more likely to reduce the hours or make redundant staff with fewer qualifications and less experience. Such staff are continuing to experience some of the most negative effects of the pandemic, such as reduced job security and income, which further jeopardises the pipeline of staffing development for the future.
  • When needing to recruit new staff, at all levels of qualification, from low qualifications to Level 6, settings were more likely to report that hiring staff was “difficult or very difficult.”

Fluctuating demand for early years places has created instability for settings

  • The average number of children attending early years settings in the spring compared to the same period before the pandemic was 8% lower in England and 6% lower in Wales.
  • Scotland’s figures report an increase of 7% in the number of children attending compared to pre-pandemic levels, which could be due to the impact of policies which increased early years entitlements for families shortly before the pandemic.
  • Settings’ ability to survive financially will continue to be dictated by parental demand for places, which is highly dependent on local economies and rates of infections, and on the availability of new workers to join the sector as many have left. Falling child attendance rates in England and Wales are likely to fall further as infections rise over the summer.

Training for early years staff to support them through the pandemic is lacking

  • While the vast majority of early years settings report continuing to offer training and support for their staff, there are often significant gaps.
  • As many as 42% of settings reported that training for speech and language is insufficient, at a time when many children have missed out on several months of provision and social interaction due to the pandemic.
  • 52% of settings also reported that there were limited opportunities for training on trauma and bereavement for young children.