Childcare chaos: Is this another Brexit bombshell they failed to warn us about?

A staffing crisis is mounting in early years care, writes children's charity founder Emma Cantrell.

We all know that the Brexit debate often divides along generational lines — but far fewer people know about the threat Brexit represents to the youngest generation of all.

But this threat is real and it is huge. The loss of EU nationals would be a serious body blow to the early years sector, already reeling from systemic retention and recruitment issues. 

High quality, affordable childcare is an essential glue binding families, communities, societies together. It provides children with a safe, supportive environment in their crucially formative years. It allows parents – mothers, mostly, but fathers too – to return to work, or focus on other caring responsibilities. And it underpins the local and broader economy, ensuring that valuable skills and experience stay within the workforce. 

Around 80% of families in England with children under 14 use some form of childcare during term-time: in 2017, that amounted to 4.4 million families and 6.3 million children. A total of 430,500 staff work in childcare and early years provision – and a staggering 97% of the pre-primary education workforce is female

The sector now finds itself facing massive challenges in hiring and holding onto quality staff. And, given that a quarter of all early years employers have EU nationals on their payroll, Brexit is a toxic addition to the mix. 

The Education Policy Institute says that staff turnover rates have been accelerating steadily over recent years, now standing at levels of up to 14%. That’s compounded by a looming recruitment crisis, with half of high-qualified (Level 6) staff now aged over 40, and 21% over 50 – and an insufficient pipeline of younger staff coming up behind them. 

Save the Children has also highlighted a shortage of nearly 11,000 graduate early years teachers in England. And research from the National Day Nurseries Alliance Workforce shows that over half of respondents are struggling to recruit Level 3 staff, while 86% of respondents saw staff leave in the past 12 months and over a third of practitioners said they were considering quitting. 

And it’s not just a quantitative problem. New research from the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) indicates that rising costs across the board for childcare providers are driving down standards, with fewer practitioners now opting to take an early years qualification.

In the past, employers could have turned to EU nationals to plug these gaps in high quality childcare and early years expertise. Yet the fog of Brexit uncertainty, particularly regarding freedom of movement, is putting paid to that. Growing numbers of EU nationals are concerned about their future, while others are deterred from coming to the UK at all. 

Even the traditional childcare alternative of hiring au pair may no longer be available: the British Au Pair Agencies Association’s Maggie Dyer has confirmed a 75% drop in applications from Europeans since 2016. 

The threat of lorry parks on the M20 or empty supermarket shelves makes headline news. The Brexit risk to early years provision does not. Yet, for a society that purports to care deeply about ensuring that all children receive the best possible start, this oversight could prove very costly.

As with so much of Brexit, it would be women, as well as their families, who would bear the brunt. None of this was on the ballot paper in 2016.

For our children’s sake, for the sake of the most vulnerable in society, Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn should stand together and give us a People’s Vote.

Emma Cantrell is the founder of First Days Children’s Charity in Maidenhead.

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