Turning the spotlight on early years workload

Article by Voice General Secretary Deborah Lawson in the June 2019 edition of Early Years Educator (EYE) Magazine, with thanks to the Early Years Alliance for the information provided.

By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice

There has, rightly, been a focus recently on teachers’ workload, but the workload pressures on practitioners in the early years sector have not been highlighted in the same way. Hopefully, an exciting new initiative will change that.   

Launched in February, the joint project between the Early Years Alliance, the Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted is exploring the workload pressures currently facing the early years workforce, and how best to address them. I am delighted to be able to represent Voice members on the project’s advisory panel.

The project follows the Alliance’s 2018 Minds Matter survey into mental health and wellbeing in the early years, which revealed that paperwork and administration were the main source of stress for childcare practitioners.

The main aim of the project is to identify areas where pressures could be reduced and where misconceptions about what is required may be creating unnecessary work. The Early Years Alliance – working with the DfE and Ofsted – has already run a first round of focus groups to gather early years practitioners’ views on workload demands, and, by the time you read this, will have launched a sector-wide online survey to give all practitioners the opportunity to share their views. I urge early years practitioners to take part.

We know from our own members that many practitioners do not feel that they have a good work-life balance and regularly feel stressed about work, with some even considering leaving the early years sector due to stress and mental health difficulties, adding to the current recruitment and retention crisis.

Voice’s own survey of nursery staff in 2015 found that many employers rely on the “goodwill” of staff to work unpaid overtime.  That goodwill – with dedicated staff suffering long hours and low pay in silence while they put the needs of the children in their care ahead of their own welfare – is being stretched with the expansion of the 30 hours scheme, putting further pressure on providers and their staff. 

Almost two-thirds of the 2,000+ responses to the Minds Matter survey said that work-related stress or mental health difficulties had impacted on their personal relationships, while three-quarters reported feeling stressed about work or an issue relating to work on a regular basis. Almost a quarter had taken time off work as a result of work-related stress or mental health issues. Shockingly, 45 respondents said that they had had thoughts of ending their own lives.


The main source of stress cited by respondents was high workload – particularly, paperwork and administration.

The recent focus groups carried out by the Early Years Alliance focused on paperwork and admin, and how they impact on the work of practitioners, managers, area heads and administration personnel from a variety of different settings. They also revealed how professionals were missing holidays and working all hours simply to ‘keep their heads above water’.

Early years professionals, by the very nature of their vocation, have high expectations, standards and a strong, passionate belief in what they do.  They can therefore feel conflicted when told what to do – and have their workload added to – by those, such as politicians, who do not have their knowledge, expertise, skills and experience.  It adds insult to injury when judgements are weighted on the standard of the very thing that adds to their workload burden – administration – rather than the quality of practice and provision. 

I know from the volume and nature of the calls Voice receives from our early years members of the demands made of them, and how they are having to do more in less time with fewer resources, increasing the amount of unpaid work outside the workplace. These demands are out of their control and often, but not always, driven by external factors, such as policy changes from government or Ofsted.

‘Not another survey!’

I know that practitioners are often asked to take part in surveys – including by Voice – and this might seem like a chore on top of your already busy work and home lives. However, these surveys do provide invaluable information that can make a difference to professionals, because they provide invaluable evidence that we and colleague organisations can take to government to show ministers the impact that their policies are having on the lives of the dedicated individuals who are providing such an essential service for this country’s children at a crucial stage in their development.  Practitioners’ informed and experience-based criticism of developing policy, delivered through surveys, consultations and forums, can make a difference in shaping and influencing its direction. 

So, please do look out for the survey and have your say [until Friday 3 May 2019].

Let’s work together to do something about the scourge of excessive and unnecessary workload that is making so many practitioners too tired or ill to continue working in the early years sector.


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