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‘Why won’t you leave?’ The question we should be asking nursery staff who choose to stay in the profession

Sarah Cobbe, Education Researcher/Practitioner

Workforce statistics in the field of early years education and childcare (EYEC) are frequently tendered as proof of how the UK system of nursery recruitment and retention is flawed, failing or broken. Figures vary by sources, but the messages are consistently stark – particularly in reference to sector-wide inequalities, pay and working conditions. Starting salaries of £16,000+ for private nursery teachers (Swain, 2020) are at least £9,000 less than those for their school-based counterparts (see DfE, 2020), and 45 per cent of workers seek state benefits to supplement their wages (Social Mobility Commission, 2020). Seventy-two per cent of staff cite job-related stress as a reason for leaving the profession (Early Years Alliance, 2021) and annual rates of turnover (24 per cent) are well above the national average (National Day Nurseries Association; NDNA, 2019). Workforce gaps are hard to fill and have forced many nurseries to hire temporary staff, restrict their hours of provision and limit the programmes they provide (Early Years Alliance, 2021). To compound matters, recruitment has proved additionally challenging in the wake of Brexit and Covid-19 (Sullivan, 2022).

In short, EYEC narratives in the UK offer substantial evidence of the problems surrounding staff retention but relatively few signs of progress (Nutbrown, 2021). Transformative practices have been proposed (Cameron & Moss, 2020), but ‘no one seems to have a real grasp of the issue’ (Sullivan, 2022) and reforms are yet to produce the changes desired. Plus, the inadvertent emphasis on circumstances compelling staff to leave seems counterintuitive when the goal is to improve retention. It is surely more meaningful to provide opportunities for the ‘greater’ number of long-serving practitioners to voice their perspectives and to focus on the conditions sustaining their employment. Twenty-four per cent may be leaving the profession annually (NDNA, 2019) but that means 76 per cent are not. Some, moreover, have been in post for more than 5 to 15 years (see for example Albert, 2022). How are they able to surmount the challenges that prompt others to exit the profession?

‘The inadvertent emphasis on circumstances compelling staff to leave seems counterintuitive when the goal is to improve retention.’

Studies in Australia (Beltman et al., 2019) suggest that practitioner resilience could be an important avenue to pursue – though further research is needed to test the applicability of their findings to staff retention in the UK. The authors’ ecological framework for exploring support mechanisms is nonetheless significant, as it illustrates the importance of looking at the factors within staff control. Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) originally defined the ecological environment as a series of nested structures that extend outwards from the individual in their setting to multiple settings that do not directly involve them. The conception allows researchers to explore the relationship between and the impact of different variables on an individual, whether these are experienced directly or indirectly. Beltman et al. (2019) identified support mechanisms only in the person- and micro-system levels, meaning that staff efforts to take care of their health and wellbeing, and the relationships they had with children and colleagues, were more facilitatory than variables beyond their immediate environment. Mechanisms for sustaining staff were not associated with the policies and reforms imposed on them, but with their workplace and each other. McKinlay et al. (2018) similarly highlighted the importance of personal characteristics and peer relationships, but also commented on the importance of training and staff incentives – not unlike those reported (rarely) in the UK.

Whether in-setting staff loyalty schemes (Albert, 2022) or person-centred induction and empowerment (Arnerich, 2017) prove to be key characteristics among long-serving UK practitioners remains to be seen, but the focus on retention is arguably more likely to engender a pertinent, practicable model for workforce retention than one associated with resignation.


Albert, A. (2022, February 1). Nursery group rewards entire workforce with free childcare.

Arnerich, M. (2017, June 1). Staff management tips: How to retain your nursery staff.

Beltman, S., Dobson, M. R., Mansfield, C. F., & Jay, J. (2019). ‘The thing that keeps me going’: Educator resilience in early years settings. International Journal of Early Years Education, 28(4), 1–16.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Harvard University Press.

Cameron, C., & Moss, P. (2020). Transforming early childhood in England. UCL Press.

Department for Education [DfE]. (2020). School teachers’ pay and conditions document 2020 and guidance on school teachers’ pay and conditions.

Early Years Alliance. (2021). Breaking point: The impact of recruitment and retention challenges on the early years sector in England.

McKinlay, S., Irvine, S., & Farrell, A. (2018). What keeps early childhood teachers working in long day care? Tackling the crisis for Australia’s reform agenda in early childhood education and care. Australasian Journal of Early Childhood, 43(2), 32–42.

National Day Nurseries Association [NDNA]. (2019). NDNA 2018/19 workforce survey England.

Nutbrown, C. (2021). Early childhood educators’ qualifications: A framework for change. International Journal of Early Years Education, 29(3), 236–249.

Social Mobility Commission. (2020). The stability of the early years workforce in England.,than%20%C2%A35.00%20an%20hour

Sullivan, J. (2022, March 15). Tackling the early years recruitment crisis head on. 

Swain, R. (2021, November). How much do teachers get paid?