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A fresh view on tackling staff shortages in the Early Years sector

You might be looking to expand your business, find a childminding assistant, or grow your nursery, but sometimes this process of recruitment can be time consuming and daunting. Many settings use recruitment agencies to help and also to supply staff to cover holidays and illness. But is it time for an overhaul to the way the recruitment industry has traditionally worked with early years settings to help them find the professionals they need? 

According to the latest figures from the Education Policy Institute, a staggering 21 per cent of Early Years practitioners qualified to Level 6 or higher will be approaching retirement within the next 15 years. This is against a backdrop of nearly 16,000 fewer registered childminders than around six years ago, resulting in many families struggling to find good quality, local childcare.

There is currently a shortage of around 11,000 early years practitioners and nursery teachers. With the political debate continuing over issues such as low pay and funding, there is a growing demand for a fresh approach to attracting and retaining the right professionals in this sector. Traditionally, recruitment agencies simply matched candidates with early years vacancies, charging the recruiter a percentage of the successful candidate’s salary as a commission. Changing business models in the early years means that this is no longer fit for purpose. 

Filling the gaps

One of the major pressure points contributing to staff shortages in the pre-school sector, in my view, is in the recruitment process itself, which is often too transactional and time consuming.

Particularly for early years settings, whether you are independent, attached to a primary school or part of a multi-academy trust (MAT), the diminishing number of applicants to vacancies can result in an increase in the use of agency staff to fill the gaps. This can be expensive, and does not always provide the continuity of staff that is important for children and settings. It can also be difficult dealing with a number of different agencies that simply match qualified people with vacancies for a fixed fee or a percentage of the candidate’s salary.

This is a short-term solution to the staffing issues settings face that is unlikely to result in long-term benefits for settings, young children or their families.

For childminders, filling the gaps and responding to demand may mean employing assistants to expand your offer and help you add more places to your setting. This can be a daunting process with writing job descriptions, advertising your vacancy online or through recruitment agencies where doing the appropriate checks and interviewing is just the start.

The time has come for new ways of working to be embraced and for the recruitment industry to be held much more accountable for the supply staff they are placing.

A fresh approach

Imagine a world where a recruitment agency is required to work much more closely with an early years setting over time to ensure the suitability of the staff they match with vacancies.

Settings could follow the growing trend being adopted by many schools and multi-academy trusts and take a much longer-term approach to the recruitment crisis by building up a pool of supply staff they can draw from who know the setting, its policies and culture.

For childminders, this would be a case of building a network of other professionals that you can use when needed. This might be for an emergency situation, if you become ill and cannot care for the children for a few days or for when you decide it is time to grow your business.

This could be a more efficient way of getting good practitioners in place, when they are needed, saving time, effort and resources.

Shine a light on your setting

One way to help this new model work is for nurseries and other early years settings to raise the profile of their setting as a good place to work. One way of doing this is to shine a bright light on the staff development opportunities they can provide. Raising the profile of your organisation in this area can boost its reputation as a place that nurtures talent and provides a rewarding career option.

Your website is a great place to start. Publish your training opportunities, offer details of specialist career development pathways and promote training you have already done. You might even want to include details of any innovative schemes your setting has launched, for example to promote healthy eating or improve children’s speech and language skills.

This will support recruitment, retention and growth by encouraging existing staff – and potential new recruits – to see your setting as a good place to work.

Debate continues across the sector and in the corridors of Whitehall over what action will help encourage more good quality early years practitioners into the sector. But fresh thinking is needed as to how recruitment agencies can better meet the needs of settings and help them build a happy and engaged workforce with the skills to work effectively with children, parents and other staff members.

About the author

Mike Ruddle has nearly 20 years’ experience working in HR services, across both the private and public sectors. As director at Affinity Workforce, he is looking at news ways of working to tackle the recruitment crisis in education from the early years and beyond.

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