From education to employment

New report highlights need for greater focus on professional development and career progression in the early years sector

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A new report providing expert insight into current and future challenges in early years has highlighted the need to improve professional development and career progression opportunities in the sector.  

The Sector Spotlight goes on to identify further areas of focus, including ensuring there are high quality and accessible routes into early years and highlighting the value and impact the sector has beyond the economic advantages of supporting parents with childcare. 

Alongside skills gap and demand data, the report also contains contributions by sector leaders Louise Woodruff, Senior Policy Advisor at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Janet King, Sector Manager for Education and Childcare at NCFE, and Lucy Lewin, Founder of Little Angels Nursery.  

The Spotlight forms part of a new series by the educational charity and leader in technical and vocational learning NCFE. To mark the organisation’s 175th anniversary, it is releasing several reports looking at critical sectors, including FE, social care, early years, and digital, before publishing a paper calling for action and change across the skills landscape.

Philip Le Feuvre, Chief Operating Officer at NCFE, said:

“To mark NCFE’s 175th anniversary, we have invited collaborators from across the sector to develop a series of spotlight reports focused on four key sectors that are essential to the future of the UK’s prosperity and productivity; education and early years, social care, digital, and the Further Education (FE) sector itself. 

“By analysing workforce data and bringing together leading voices from across these sectors, as well as hearing from those working on the frontline of their respective fields, we can begin to identify current and upcoming challenges, as well as potential opportunities to address the skills gaps that have emerged. 

 “What’s clear from the insights in these reports is that sector skills gaps will continue or worsen if bold and transformative action is not taken.”

Utilising Office for National Statistics labour demand volumes, the Early Years Sector Spotlight report shows that, in 2022, there were over 4,000 more job postings within the early years and childcare sector as a whole than in 2017. This includes the creation of brand-new jobs, seen as emerging skills, as well as people leaving roles and creating a vacancy. Both result in a skills gap, with the sector’s increasing by over 2% during the last five years.

Writing in the report, Lucy Lewin said:

“Retention issues and skills shortages continue to pose significant hurdles, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic. 

“For employees, this can create a sense of instability and uncertainty in their professional lives, as it can be disheartening for them to witness the immense value of their work while facing challenges in career progression or limited opportunities for professional growth. This can lead to frustration and, in some cases, talented individuals leaving the sector altogether.  

“Setting managers also feel the effects of these retention and skills-based challenges as they must navigate the complexities of managing a team amidst staffing shortages and skill gaps, which can put immense pressure on their workload and stress levels.” 

Janet King adds: “A recruitment and retention crisis leads to an inevitable skills gap in the workforce. With any large turnover of staff, there are implications for stability, and this may equate to vulnerabilities in leadership and management. 

“Put bluntly, staff joining are not staying. Where they are staying, they are taking up management and leadership positions with little post-qualification practice, whilst more experienced staff are the ones that leave.  

“Quality interactions with babies and young children are essential for their holistic health, development, and wellbeing, and this is reliant on strong pedagogical leadership and modelling. To reduce this gap, the sector must take action to ensure it continues to appeal as an exciting and rewarding career with clear opportunities for progression.” 

NCFE is taking steps to tackle the issue and will soon launch a new Professional Practice Framework (PPF) to support continuous professional development (CPD) in the sector. Free at the point of access, the PPF will cover all areas identified by the Early Years Statutory Framework, with CPD resources arranged into discreet starting points to include student, newly qualified, and experienced.

In its Sector Spotlight report, NCFE identifies a total of three areas of focus drawn from the data and expert views:

  • Qualifications and training – ensure there are high quality and accessible routes into early years and childcare so that there is a pipeline of skills into the sector. This will ensure the current skills gap doesn’t continue to grow. Once in the sector, early years professionals must then have access to professional development and training opportunities.
  • Career progression – the large number of experienced professionals leaving the sector entirely is forcing younger, less experienced individuals to assume management positions with little post-qualification practice. We must do more to retain the knowledge in the early years and childcare sector by presenting clearer opportunities for career progression.
  • Changing the narrative – more could be done to highlight the value and incredible impact the early years and childcare sector has on society. Often the narrative is solely around the cost for working parents and the potential effect on the economy, but more needs to be said about its essential educational role – particularly for disadvantaged young children. 

To read the full Early Years Sector Spotlight and subsequent reports as they’re published, visit

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