Parents 'will be turned away' due to Level 3 staffing crisis (2023)

While recruiting Level 3-qualified staff has been an issue for several years, settings have told Nursery World that the situation is now so dire they fear they will be forced to turn families away because of staff shortages.

  • Nurseries report Level 3 recruitment ‘critical’
  • Pandemic has led to more staff leaving the sector
  • Concern nurseries will need to turn children away to meet EYFS staff:child ratios

The Department for Education temporarily disapplied some specific staffing requirements within the EYFS where Covid restrictions prevented providers from meeting them, which the Department for Education has confirmed will end in August.

Early years settings wanting staff to work as room leaders and requiring them to have a Level 3 qualification, are finding staffing particularly hard.

Laura Milligan, who owns the 48-place Kids Corner in Metheringham, Lincolnshire with her mother Diane Ward, said while they have always struggled to recruit Level 3s, ‘this is another level’. She added, ‘We hear about nurseries closing and people on furlough – where are the qualified staff going?’

Comparing it with her experience of working in a nursery eight years ago, when there were ‘40 or 50 applicants’ for one Level 3 job, Ms Milligan’s nursery has been advertising for a Level 3/room leader since February. ‘I’ve only had two applicants, and both were unqualified,’ she said.

Some qualified staff who do apply for jobs do not turn up for interviews, the setting reports.

The pandemic has also affected jobs in other ways. ‘People seem to want to work on their doorstep [now] and don’t want to travel,’ Ms Milligan said.

One staff member has left to swap a 45-minute commute for a nursery job seven minutes’ walk from their home.

Parents 'will be turned away' due to Level 3 staffing crisis (1)

Kids Corner in Metheringham, Lincolnshire, is struggling to recruit Level 3s. Pictured are owners Laura Milligan (right) and Diane Ward (left).

The struggle to recruit Level 3s is so dire that Kids Corner staff are working more than 50 hours a week.

‘Our influx in pre-school has been massive since we came back after Christmas. We’ve had some new starters after Easter. We’re getting to the point where we can’t keep to the ratios. We’ve never had this before,’ Ms Milligan said.

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The nursery’s inspection is due in the next cycle when Ofsted restarts inspections in the summer. ‘Our last inspection was in 2016. It will be very tight, staffing wise. My mum and me are super-numerary,’ Ms Milligan said. She added that both she and her mother, an accountant, are counting themselves in ratios to keep within the EYFS rules.

The nursery is so concerned about its ability to maintain staff:child ratios in order to not turn children away that it has spoken to the local council’s early years team. ‘We were told it was a countrywide problem and the council were in talks with the Department for Education and Ofsted,’ Ms Milligan said.

Liz Farmer, co-director of Atelier Nursery’s two settings in Bath and Chippenham, echoed concerns about ratios.

She said, ‘We have seen a significant number of staff resign and move out of childcare into other sectors. I can’t help feeling that the situation with Covid has contributed to this, with staff feeling forgotten at times with very little recognition of the part they have played.

‘Replacing them with Level 3-qualified staff is proving very difficult with very few candidates coming forward. At the moment we are managing to maintain our qualified staff ratios, but if things continue as they are, it will be hard to avoid turning families away. In fact, we have already delayed some children starting with us while we recruit.’

Co-director Clare Crowther added that it was ‘particularly challenging' finding staff to support children with SEND. ‘We cannot find one-to-one workers to support them.’

Apprenticeship delays

One Level 3 apprentice at Kids Corner has been employed at the nursery since March 2020, but the pandemic delayed her apprenticeship starting.

‘She’s been with us for just over a year, but couldn’t start until September. Training providers weren’t signing people up due to Covid,’ said Ms Milligan.

Sandi Jones, owner of the Climbing High group of five nurseries in Northamptonshire and Rutland, believes it takes too long to put someone through a Level 3 apprenticeship. ‘We’re in an industry haemorrhaging Level 3s. I’d like to speed up the period of the qualification. It’s a minimum of 14 months, but in reality is taking 18 months-plus,’ she said.

Recruitment shortages are ‘critical. We’re at breaking point. There aren’t enough Level 3s out there,’ she added. She believes Level 2 qualifications should be ‘more worthwhile’ and count for more in ratios, with Level 3 ‘building on that’.

‘All Covid has done has sped the process up’ of qualified staff leaving the sector, Ms Jones said. She cited a non-specialist jobs board advertising 174 jobs for Level 3 early years practitioners in her area.

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In common with others whom Nursery World spoke to, Ms Jones thinks teaching assistants and others with related qualifications, for example in health and social care, and those qualified from abroad, should be able to do a short conversion course in order to count as Level 3s.

‘Most nurseries are operating at below 50 per cent qualified staff. That’s fine in a lot of industries, but when you’ve got the requirements of Ofsted, we’ve got to get these people qualified. It’s not about us only wanting Level 2s, but we need to move people through quicker.

‘There is a disconnect between the policy level and what’s actually happening on the ground,’ she said.

No applicants

Parents 'will be turned away' due to Level 3 staffing crisis (2)Kaye Wildman, who owns Nursery on the Hill in Enfield, North London, (pictured right) said she has had adverts running since before Christmas, but ‘cannot recruit qualified staff for “love nor money”’.

She has recently expanded her second setting, Nursery on the Green, with a new 15-place baby room, but is struggling to recruit a Level 3 to staff it.

‘I haven’t been able to recruit a Level 3 since June 2019. Most of my staff are home-grown, I hang on to them for dear life. Even agencies can’t find us staff,’ she said, adding that she has a lot of apprentices apply and has taken on four.

‘I have not had one Level 3 applicant in over four months; I think it’s a knock-on effect from changing the GCSEs [the requirement for maths and English]. We haven’t caught up yet,’ Ms Wildman said.

‘We need Level 3s, I truly welcomed the upgrades to the qualification standards – but unless things change, I’m not sure how we will be able to sustain our businesses and work within the welfare requirements set down by Ofsted. It’s dire out there and, from experience, I know this is a nationwide problem.’

She added, ‘The furlough I believe has had a negative impact – many nursery workers have just languished at home, while some nurseries were doomed to close but kept staff on payroll. Perhaps we might see an influx of staff once furlough comes to an end.’

Workforce crisis

The DfE has launched Level 3 funding for those aged 24 and over, who do not already hold any Level 3 qualification. Stella Ziolkowski, director of quality and training at the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said, ‘The offer of Government-funded Level 3 training is a step in the right direction but it will take time for this to benefit the PVI sector.

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‘Data from our survey in 2019 showed numbers of Level 3s in the workforce had dropped dramatically from 83 per cent in 2015 to just 56 per cent.’

Citing the NDNA’s early years workforce surveys with the Education Policy Institute during the pandemic, she said in the last lockdown around three in ten Level 3 staff were furloughed.

‘Between March and August 2020, we saw 4 per cent of Level 3s made redundant and 8 per cent of them leave their jobs voluntarily,’ Ms Ziolkowski said.

‘Also, the pandemic has meant that some students are finishing their courses without practical experience or assessment in a setting. Without this practical element, their qualifications aren’t full and relevant so they cannot be included in ratios until further qualifications are gained.’

The NDNA is launching the fourth part of its workforce survey with the EPI this month.

Neil Leitch, Early Years Alliance chief executive, cited recruitment barriers such asschools and retailers offering much higher salaries.

‘Add to this the ongoing impact of the 2014 change to maths and English requirements for Level 3 practitioners, and the fact prospective candidates often have qualifications that are not full and relevant, and it’s understandable that so many settings are struggling to fill vacancies,’ he said.

‘Of course, recruitment is made even more pressing by the impact of the pandemic on the ability of settings to retain existing staff. Many practitioners report feeling increasingly undervalued, and working in
the sector during the pandemic has negatively impacted their well-being.

‘With reports of vacancies now going unfilled for months at a time, clearly urgent action is needed if we are to tackle this worrying trend.’

Speaking on behalf of the Early Years Workforce Commission, Janet King, sector manager of education and childcare at CACHE, part of the NCFE brand, said, ‘The early years workforce has demonstrated incredible resilience during the course of the pandemic, but the impact has been significant on the sector, leaving deep scars for many settings on a local and national scale.

‘Creating a sustainable workforce is key to overcoming so many of the issues faced by the sector and we’re always keen to highlight the many different pathways into such a rewarding and critically important industry, whether that be through T-Levels, apprenticeships or the many other routes on offer.’

Nursery World asked both Ofsted and the Institute for Apprenticeships for a comment, but in both cases was referred back to the Department for Education.

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A DfE spokesperson said, ‘Now more than ever it is vital that the early years workforce has the appropriate knowledge, skills and experience to deliver high-quality early education
and childcare.

‘That’s why we are developing new training routes for early years professionals, including apprenticeships developed by employer trailblazer groups, and we introduced a new T-Level in education and childcare last September.’

The EYFS disapplications are not due to expire until August, so will still be in place for summer inspections. The DfE also highlighted these two points from Ofsted:

  • during the summer term, the majority of Ofsted’s activity will continue to be lighter-touch monitoring inspections, as have been in place since January; and
  • any graded inspections carried out in the summer term will maintain the 4 key education inspection framework (EIF) judgements, but with additional flexibility in recognition of current contexts.

What is the Kickstart scheme?

Employers can apply for funding to create jobs for 16- to 24-year-olds on Universal Credit who are at risk of long-term unemployment.

Originally the scheme, launched last September, was only available to recruit 30 employees or more, with smaller employers encouraged to join together to apply through ‘a gateway’.

However, in January, the Department for Work and Pensions removed this requirement.

Employers of all sizes can apply for funding, which covers 100 per cent of the National Minimum or Living Wage, 25 hours a week, for six months.

Kids Planet Nurseries, the third-largest UK nursery group, has recruited 30 new staff through the scheme, and said it has 90 more places available this year.

However, many nurseries interviewed for this article referenced their frustration at not being successful in accessing the scheme. Kids Corner’s Laura Milligan said, ‘We tried to get on board, said we wanted a qualified Level 3. I know other nurseries got turned down.’

A DWP spokesperson said, ‘Employers from all industries and across the private, public and voluntary sectors can apply to the Kickstart scheme. To qualify, jobs must meet certain requirements – they need to be additional, meaning they would not have existed without the funding, and they need to last for six consecutive months. In the context of a childcare provider this means, for example, that the Kickstart roles need to be over and above normal staffing ratios.’

In addition, term-time-only settings must provide ‘meaningful work’ during the times their childcare is closed.

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