Early Childhood Hub

Exploring the contrasting professional development opportunities available for staff in private and voluntary Early Years settings

Written By: Natasha Crellin
8 min read
Natasha Crellin, Headteacher, The Hill Primary School, UK


Retention of Early Years staff is a challenge for many Early Years settings, and recruitment and retention take a considerable amount of leadership capacity. There are many reasons why the sector faces retention challenges, including working conditions, pay and the demographic of people attracted to the work. Professional development is considered a lead factor in staff retention, as a well-trained workforce improves the quality of provision and is a key factor in improving motivation in work. This would suggest that close scrutiny of the types of professional development offered to Early Years staff may support staff retention.

Unlike other sectors in education, there is limited research on the availability of professional development in the Early Years workforce, and even less research has been conducted on the different opportunities offered to staff in private day nursery settings, compared to voluntary sector settings. This is despite the sector accounting for a workforce of over 360,000 in England (DfE, 2019). The vast majority (99 per cent) of those employed within this sector are women (Caroll et al., 2008). This makes the childcare market a major employment sector, especially for women. Commentary on the changes to the Early Years sector since the development of the private sector in England (Neuman, 2005) are scarce.

Background to the study

The last 70 years have seen childcare in England develop rapidly from a cottage industry to a major financial sector. Political interest in early childhood education and care has increased over this time due to economic, social and lifestyle changes, which have centred on women returning to the workforce after having a family (Arber and Gilbert, 1992). This increased attention has led to unprecedented demands on staff and providers, who have had to keep up with rafts of changes and increased expectations with regard to their work. The introduction and success of private day nursery settings in England have split the childcare sector into two distinct sectors: the newer model of privately owned day nurseries, which usually run for profit, and the more traditional not-for-profit model preschools, also known as the voluntary sector (PVI).

Many Early Years practitioners, especially those in the private sector, have poor access to professional development training due to inflexible course delivery and cost (Osgood, 2005). The Nutbrown report (2012) found that Early Years practitioners struggled to access high-quality training to support and develop their skills. A large majority of practitioners who took part in the review (72 per cent) cited costs of training and cover staff as the main barriers to accessing courses and training. The report went on to make the recommendations that professional development should be an expectation of leaders and directors, and that providing evidence of staff training should be a part of the Ofsted inspection framework (Nutbrown, 2012). Ofsted requirements for staff professional development are currently minimal, stating that opportunities should be provided but offering no information on what these should be. But are these limitations to professional development true of day nursery and voluntary sectors alike, or is there a difference in experience for staff in these two types of setting?

A small-scale study exploring the work experiences of Early Years practitioners explored the perceptions of staff in these contrasting settings (Crellin, 2017). This study interviewed 25 staff in four settings: two day nurseries and two PVI preschools. These interviews provide a snapshot of the sector, yet each individual view holds value in highlighting unexplored viewpoints within the Early Years workforce.


Crellin’s study indicated that staff in the day nursery setting had less access to professional development opportunities than their colleagues working in the voluntary sector. This supports Osgood’s (2005) assertion that staff in day nurseries have poor access to professional development training due to inflexible course delivery and cost.

Voluntary sector staff talked of frequently accessing training, and it was an expectation that they would attend courses and take responsibility for their professional development. Staff were asked as part of their appraisal cycle to raise areas of interest and to find courses that interested them. They discussed having opportunities to find training in areas of interest, such as SEND (special educational needs and disabilities), maths or English, as well as statutory areas such as food hygiene. This contrasted with the experience of staff in the day nursery settings. They felt that training opportunities rarely came up, and if they did, staff were not paid for participating in these courses. Likewise, if the course was on a weekend or an evening, they were not offered any time in lieu or overtime. Staff were expected to pay for the courses themselves, which acted as a barrier to attending courses and had a detrimental impact on the desire to do so. Some staff in day nursery settings worked more than one job, and attending courses on evenings or weekends was not an option, as it would have impacted their second job. These barriers meant that staff did not engage in training opportunities, even if they were available.

Staff in the day nursery settings spoke of being promised training in an appraisal, but this never resulted in them being booked on any courses. These staff discussed training being dangled in front of them when they raised issues during an annual review as a reason to stay in the company, but these promises did not materialise in actual courses.

The staff in the two settings spoke differently about the process of appraisal and supervision. Participants from the day nurseries felt that the appraisals were irregular and tokenistic, with little or no impact on their work. Participants felt that it was an opportunity to raise concerns and air grievances, but that management did not follow up on issues raised. They discussed frustration and sometimes anger at being offered things at appraisal to then see them taken away or never acted on. These staff suggested that appraisals were carried out to meet the statutory aspect of the EYFS (Early Years Foundation Stage) framework, which requires staff to have supervision, but that the management team had no real desire to support staff or implement change. The effectiveness of this type of appraisal was minimal. This impacted on how valued the staff felt and added to their belief that they were just there to fill ratios and were not worthy of training and development.

The experience of staff in the voluntary sector was more positive. They discussed being set targets that were reached collaboratively, and said that it was a process that helped them to reflect on the year and set goals for the future. Staff in the voluntary sector preschools felt that this was a mutually supportive experience that led to strengthening the understanding between the practitioners and the management team.

One manager of a voluntary setting discussed the development a training plan for all the staff at the preschool. On a yearly basis, she would look at areas of development in the staff as a whole team and then look at which courses were available to help to develop specialisms. These courses were mostly from the local authority offer, but would occasionally be led by universities. Reflecting on themes raised as part of the appraisal process, she would approach staff to see whether they were interested in attending these courses. Staff development was a planned, strategic activity. She described staff training as a priority for her as a manager, and she demonstrated a commitment to ensuring that staff were continually improving their practice. She also felt that it was important that she attended courses, and this became a model of best practice for staff.


In both types of setting, staff felt that managers who allowed them to attend training valued them. In opposition to this, those who attended training in their own time or who had to pay for training, such as in the day nurseries, felt undervalued. These staff described the management team as inaccessible to staff, saying that they had limited relationships with them. Staff in private settings did not see their managers as being part of their working teams but as a level of hierarchy beyond their contact, and this created an ‘us against them’ attitude to management. Issues of training availability were not just financial but also represented a greater belief in the value and worth of the worker.

Staff who felt undervalued in their work had an attitude that the role was a short-term job. Staff in day nurseries expressed doing the job for a few years until they decided what they really wanted to do. They considered it a fill-in or a stepping stone to other things. This meant that they had limited aspirations to improve or develop. They felt that there was no longevity or progression when working in childcare. Interestingly, the two setting types reported diverse levels of staff turnover. Managers of the voluntary settings described rarely having vacancies and having practitioners approach them for jobs, with ‘drawers full of CVs’. The managers in the day nurseries described recruitment and advertising as a continuous process, meaning that recruitment was a task that took up a substantial percentage of management time.


This research highlights the fact that training and opportunities to develop expertise should be a priority for all managers in all types of setting. Staff who enjoy regular training can develop skills and qualifications and take on additional responsibilities and feel valued. A robust appraisal and supervision system that helps to identify training interests and needs is essential to develop staff confidence in the management. An appraisal system that is seen as a tick-box exercise frustrates staff and makes them feel worthless. Managers need to ensure that anything offered to staff is followed up, as a lack of follow-through makes staff feel that the management team cannot be trusted. This impacts on the collegiality of the team.

Rather than identifying the short-term cost of the training, leaders need to consider the longer-term impact on staff retention. It seems centrally important for leaders and managers in private settings to embrace a positive attitude towards the training and development of their staff. The cost of training is a poor indicator of the value of strong, continued professional development compared to the excessive costs of perpetual recruitment due to high staff turnover.

A high-quality continuous professional development programme can support staff to feel engaged and enthused in their role – to try new things learned and to reflect on the impact of current practices. Keeping staff up to date with new legislation and research on best practice leads to greater confidence in the profession. Developing a positive attitude to staff training needs to become a central aspect of the strategic plan for all childcare settings in order to ensure that the workforce are highly skilled and reflective practitioners. Staff development needs to be seen as an important part of the setting’s development. The decision to support and fund training is a strategic one, which practitioners cannot lead. Decisions on the value of training and the budget for allocating training come from the management team. Likewise, the quality of the appraisal is led by the leadership team.

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