New research from Education Policy Institute (EPI), supported by the Nuffield Foundation, provides a detailed analysis of the childcare workforce in England.

The report compares conditions and characteristics of childcare workers with those in ‘competing’ jobs such as hairdressers and beauticians – occupations that are often regarded as career alternatives. Comparisons are also made with teachers, and the female working population.

The government recognises that childcare can play a critical role in a child’s outcomes in life. Research shows that supporting and developing a high quality workforce is central to this.

Key findings

A large proportion of childcare workers are struggling financially

  • Pay is low, both in relative and absolute terms. The childcare workforce earned an average hourly pay of £8.20 in 2018 – around 40 per cent less than the average female worker.
  • Childcare workers are in a position of high financial insecurity, with a high proportion of workers claiming state benefits or tax credits (44.5 per cent). This is more than competing occupations, such as hairdressers and beauticians, as well as the female working population as a whole (34 per cent).
  • The sector has suffered a pay reduction of nearly 5 per cent in real terms since 2013, despite working women overall seeing rises of 2.5 per cent.
  • Real-terms pay decreases mean that childcare workers’ pay in 2018 is now virtually the same as that of hairdressers and beauticians. This is despite increased government investment in early education, and recognition of the key role of childcare workers in improving the quality of provision.  This also does nothing to dispel the culture, in some schools and colleges, that childcare should only be seen as a route for those with low prior-attainment.

Sector recruitment problems: immediate and long-term

  • Childcare providers frequently report difficulties in hiring staff, particularly well qualified staff that have full ‘Early Years Educator’ status (level 3 qualification). The numbers of staff with this qualification have been erratic, standing at 65.9 per cent in 2013, 73 per cent in 2016, and 68.3 per cent in 2018, for nursery nurses and assistants.
  • The sector is ageing, and faces an increasingly uncertain future. In 2018, around 90,000 childcare workers were 55 years old or above. A significant number are likely to exit the workforce in the next decade and there is little indication that sufficient numbers of younger workers will replace retiring older workers.
  • In 2018, more than 37,000 EU nationals were working in childcare in England, totalling 5.1 per cent of all workers. This is a similar contribution to EU nationals in the NHS (63,000 workers and 5.6 per cent of staff).

The workforce has low qualifications, which could affect the quality of childcare provision

  • The childcare workforce is also far less qualified than the teaching workforce and the general female working population, and slightly better qualified than hairdressers and beauticians. In 2018, 25.1 per cent of the childcare workers had completed a degree, 36 per cent A levels or equivalent, and 24.4 per cent GCSEs or below. By contrast, around 93 per cent of teachers have a degree or equivalent. Overall, qualification levels have marginally increased, but at a very slow pace in the last few years.
  • Supporting childcare workers to upskill and gain higher qualifications is critical to the quality of early years education, yet many workers are not undertaking further training, in part due to fewer opportunities provided by employers. For those that do upskill, there is no guarantee of career progress.
  • This trend is particularly worrying for childcare workers, given their relatively low level of education at the time they enter the profession and the importance of professional development to improve workforce quality.

The workforce remains predominantly female

  • The number of male workers in the childcare sector has increased – yet remains very low at 7.4 per cent. This is only around half the proportion of male workers in other female-dominated professions, such as hairdressers and beauticians (13.7 per cent) and with nursery and primary teachers (15.8 per cent).
  • Within this figure, just 1.8 per cent of nursery nurses and assistants, and 4 per cent of childminders, are male.

Childcare workers’ refers to nursery nurses and assistants, childminders, playworkers, teaching assistants, and educational support assistants. ‘Teachers’ or ‘teaching workers’ refers to primary and nursery teachers, secondary teachers, and special needs education teachers.

A comparison with hairdressers and beauticians is made because there is often a tendency for young people to pursue either childcare, hairdressing or beauty therapy if they have low prior-attainment, despite the importance of having highly qualified people supporting the development of young children. The equalisation of pay across the two professions is unlikely to change this outlook and could draw workers away from childcare and into hairdressing or beauty therapy.


This research is supported by a grant from the Nuffield Foundation. The Nuffield Foundation is an endowed charitable trust that aims to improve social wellbeing in the widest sense. It funds research and innovation in education and social policy and also works to build capacity in education, science and social science research. The Nuffield Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Foundation. 

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