The childcare sector: providers and the workforce in England

Blog posts

28 Jul 2023

Anneka Dawson, Head of IES Trials Unit and Pre-16 Education
Ceri Williams, Senior Research Fellow
Alexandra Nancarrow, Research Fellow

This analysis was originally published in Campaign for Learning's 'Expanding childcare: time for children, parents and family learning'. The Campaign for Learning’s report includes analysis and recommendations from experts including labour market economists, children development and parental engagement experts, organisations representing working families, childcare groups and family learning specialists. 

Both the present Conservative Government and Labour opposition plan to expand childcare in England. A realistic assessment is needed of where the childcare sector is today to inform what needs to change to meet the planned expansion. This includes both early years education and childcare (EYEC).

Current entitlements to funded childcare

There are three main entitlements to funded childcare in England at present:

  • All 3- to 4- year-olds are entitled to 15 hours funded childcare per week for 38 weeks (570 hours in total) irrespective of whether their parents are working or not;
  • Parents with 3- to 4- year-olds are entitled to 30 hours funded childcare for 38 weeks (1,140 hours in total) if they each work more than 16 hours per week at the national living wage (£10.42) – equivalent to £8,670 per year – and each earn less than £100,000 per year; and
  • Some 2-year-olds from households that claim qualifying benefits or have additional needs are entitled to 15 hours funded childcare per week for 38 weeks.

Providers, places and take-up

In 2022, the number of providers delivering EYEC in England was 59,400 (see Box 1), including 28,200 childminders; 21,600 group-based providers and 9,600 school-based providers (see Box 2 for definitions of group-based providers and school-based providers). This is a drop from 62,000 in 2021.

Source: Department for Education Survey of Childcare and Early years Providers,
published December 2022

Sources: Department for Education, Education provision: children under 5 years of age, published June 2022 and Department for Education Survey of Childcare and Early years Providers, published December 2022

Together these providers offered 1.54 million Ofsted registered places in 2022: 1,044,500 group-based places, 327,900 school-based nursery places and 170,700 childminding places. Compared to 2021, this is a drop of over 10,000 places.

In 2022, there were an estimated 1.2 million 3- and 4-year-olds and 135,400 2-year-olds enrolled in the 15-hour entitlement for funded childcare. Also, approximately 348,100 3-and 4- year-olds were enrolled on the 30-hour entitlement limited to working parents who meet the eligibility criteria (see Box 3).

Source: Department for Education, Education provision: children under 5 years of age, published June 2022


Number of staff

There were estimated to be 334,400 early years staff (see Box 1) in 2022. The total included 248,200 group-based provision staff, 52,300 school-based provision staff, and 33,900 childminders and childminder assistants. This was an overall increase of 5,900 (from 328,500 in 2021). While the number of school-based provider staff decreased by 3% and the number of childminders and childminder assistants decreased by 12%, the number of group-based provider staff increased by 5%. About 45% of early years and childcare staff were employed by group-based providers and 38% by school-based providers (DfE, 2022b).

Most staff are females under 40

The majority (98%) of all staff (including temporary staff) were female and most were aged 25 to 39 years old (DfE, 2022b).Private group-based providers had the most staff under 25 years old (23%) and had the biggest percentage increase in staff between 2021 and 2022 (a 9% increase). Childminders included the most staff aged 50 years old or older (42%). On average, school-based providers had five staff members and group-based providers an average of 11 staff members.

Temporary staff and voluntary workers

Since 2021, the number of temporary staff had increased by 11%, the number of voluntary workers was up by 44% and the number of apprentices rose by 32%.

Jobs with apprenticeships

There has been an increase in the number of apprenticeships in the sector, predominantly in group-based providers. There was an increase in apprentices of 32% between 2021 and 2022 to 24,600. Nearly all of these extra apprentices (5,700 of the 6,000 increase) were in group-based providers (DfE, 2022b).

Minimum pay by broad occupation and registered providers

Approximately 3% of all jobs in the broad occupation group ‘caring, leisure and other service occupations’ were paid below the National Minimum Wage compared with 1.7% for the whole economy in 2022 (ONS, 2022). National Minimum Wage rates in 2023 are: 21- and 22-year-olds - £10.18; 18- to 20-year olds - £7.49; and under 18 year olds and apprentices - £5.28.

The National Living Wage applies to 23-year-olds and over. The rate from April 2023 was £10.42 per hour. In terms of the 334,400 staff delivering early years provision with registered providers (see Box 1), 14% of staff in school-based settings, 16% in group-based settings and 37% of childminding assistants were paid below the National Living Wage in 2022 (DfE, 2022b).


Data from Adzuna on salaries showed that across the past year, the median listed salary for vacancies in this area was £21,500, which is 33% less than the median salary of £30,000 across all vacancies (D. Muir, Adzuna blog, 2023).

Staff turnover in registered providers

Group-based providers had a staff turnover rate of 18%. School-based providers had a rate of 9%.


Between April 2022 – April 2023, there were 19,600 vacancies for childcare practitioners, 37,300 vacancies for childcare assistants, 14,500 vacancies for childminders and 3,300 vacancies for playworkers (D. Muir, Adzuna blog, 2023).

Growth in demand for these roles has been at a similar or higher level than for all other occupations since the pandemic low of mid-May 2020. Alongside growth in demand, however, is low interest levels for these roles amongst jobseekers, especially for practitioner roles. Providers are consequently reporting it is very difficult to recruit (DfE, 2023).

Qualifications of staff with registered providers

82% of school-based provider staff, 80% of group-based provider staff and 74% of childminder staff have a Level 3 qualification or higher (DfE, 2022b).

Training and progression with registered providers

In terms of training and progression, the Education Policy Institute and NDNA conducted research around Covid-19 regarding the early years workforce. It found significant gaps, including in speech and language and trauma and bereavement training (NDNA and EPI,2021).

Child ratios

In the Spring Budget, the Chancellor announced an optional relaxation in child ratios for 2-year-old children from 1:4 to 1:5 from September 2023.

Further qualification flexibilities

All settings are required to have enough staff qualified with a ‘full and relevant’ qualification to meet the legal standards for staff:child ratios. The DfE provide a list of qualifications that meet these standards, which includes over 50 qualifications. This system is currently under consultation (until July 2023), including
possibly changing the need for all Level 3 practitioners to hold a maths qualification to only requiring this of the setting manager, and reducing the number of Level 2 practitioners needed for setting ratios.

Although these courses were consolidated in the past, research on the sector’s understanding of the ‘full and relevant’ qualifications suggests that the system is confusing, and updates are needed (Morton, Nursery World, 2023). The response to the consultation in the sector press, however, suggests that this should not be through making the qualification requirements lower, as this will reduce the quality of the provision.

Problems before expansion

Recruitment and retention

Overall, there is no doubt that the childcare sector has a significant recruitment and retention problem.

Local Authorities not using funding correctly

There is evidence that the funding devolved to local authorities by DfE for early years education and childcare is not being used by them for early years education and childcare or not being used in the right way (I. Priestly, NDNA, 2023).

Professionalising the childcare workforce

The childcare workforce needs greater professionalisation before we embark on the expansion of the system.

Extended entitlements to funded childcare

The present Conservative Government has put in place the following plans:

  • From April 2024, working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of funded childcare – equivalent to 570 hours per year.
  • From September 2024, 15 hours of funded childcare will be extended down to the age of 9 months – for working parents – equivalent to 570 hours per year.
  • From September 2025, working parents of children aged 9 months and upwards will be entitled to 30 hours funded childcare per week right up to their child starting school – equivalent to 1,140 hours per year (DfE Education Hub, June 2023).

Although the entitlements are phased in, the expansion from 2024 and the reduction in staff:child ratios will put more pressure on providers, with more settings being likely to close in coming years.

Recommendation 1

Policy makers should shift their focus from childcare to education (P.Moss, 2020). Early years education should be fully-funded by the Government to bring EYEC in-line with education for 5-to 18-year-olds and the Government must urgently address the underspends in early years education by some local authorities.

Recommendation 2

The Government should introduce an Early Years Workforce Development Plan. Employers and employees need greater clarity and financial support. These need to follow a clear career path with progression points mapped out and training to be free or heavily subsidised.

Recommendation 3

A high proportion of the registered childcare workforce aged 23 and over are not paid the National Living Wage (between 14-16% of staff with registered providers and 37% of childminder assistants are paid below the National Living Wage). The National Living Wage needs to be enforced in the sector. Further, to tackle low pay in the early years education and childcare sector and recruit and retain 18 -23 year olds, the National Living Wage should be paid to all workers in the registered sector who are over 18.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.