With its feet stuck firmly in researchful foundations this article provides practical advice on how to keep your Early Years staff. Providers of full daycare are known to be prone to staff retention issues (DCSF 2007). Therefore, it makes good Early Years business sense, to develop an understanding of retention issues and be proactive in dealing with them. How to keep your Early Years staff is a response to burning questions like: What is retention? Why is retention important? How do we know if practitioners are unhappy? How can we improve retention in our Early Years setting?

What retention is and is not

Interestingly, ‘retention’ means ‘custody’. It speaks of ‘control’ and ‘possession’. Although not quite the position the Early Years sector wishes to take on retention, it is perhaps not uncommon for members of the workforce to feel shackled, controlled – a possession to be used by the setting. No, the retention of which we speak ‘maintains’ and ‘preserves’. It creates an air of satisfaction, well-being and team spirit; such an ethos in not idealism but the result of professional perfectionism born out of consideration for others. In many ways ‘retention’ is a poor choice of vocabulary, except that it has a pleasant ring when coupled together with recruitment [and retention. However, retention in context is about being able to keep your early years staff!

The importance of retention

A cloud of thought comes to mind regarding the importance of retention. Replacing staff is costly in terms of time, money and emotional energy. Businesses that retain staff make savings in these areas. If making savings was the only reason for improving retention it would still be worth the effort. Perhaps a far more compelling reason to reduce staff turnover is for the sake of the children. Needless to say, retaining quality staff ensures continuity of care and is good for the children, but this article is more about the grown-ups.

It is important at this juncture to acknowledge two distinctly different people groups in Early Years settings – the ‘business-minded’ and the ‘child-minded’. When the ‘business-minded’ were invited to open nurseries to help fill the ‘childcare gap’, some of the ‘child-minded’ perceived them to be ‘only in it for the money’; a difficult concept to grasp in early years and childcare! These perceptions are still rife today. Early Years practitioners who work long hours for relatively little financial reward are apt to think that Early Years business owners are taking all the profits, at the expense of the staff. It is up to nursery owners to foster mutual understandings with staff of where the money comes from and goes to. That is not to suggest you open the books to everyone, it is your business, but an opportunity to build professional relationships is not to be missed. Early Years practitioners who feel valued are more likely to remain in the setting (Simms 2010).

Retention is also important to Ofsted in that Ofsted are aware ‘staff expertise and qualifications make a distinct difference to the richness of young children’s experiences’ (Ofsted, 2013a). So, with early years providers now being ‘subject to a tougher early years inspection framework’ Early Years businesses must determine to keep such staff (Ofsted, 2013b).

How do I know whether staff are unhappy if they don’t tell me?

Researchful experience concludes that staff will not always tell you they are unhappy to the point of leaving, but they will tell friends and peers – and they tell me. Momentarily putting yourself in their shoes, you feel a resistance to tell the boss you are so miserable you don’t care whether you have another job to go to, you are leaving anyway! More practitioners than one have been told,
“If you don’t like it you know where the door is!”

One fundamental issue for Early Years practitioners is whether they ‘feel sufficiently valued to remain’ in the setting or ‘feel their vocational passion is being exploited’ (Simms, 2010). So, one way to find out whether your staff are likely to be happy involves reflecting on how you show appreciation – or lack of it. Another is to stay abreast of political fear and folly. Increased child: staff ratios, for example, will you or won’t you? Practice assurance and reassurance.

There are many tell-tale signs that staff are unhappy. Next time you hold a staff meeting let someone else do the talking while you catch the vibes and observe fleeting glances. Gauge stress levels. Listen carefully. What is the body language saying? Are their many voices or one voice? Make notes. Invite input into your reflections from a trusted colleague.

How can we improve retention in our Early Years setting?

Research tells us that many Early Years practitioners really are in the profession because they love children. Whilst poor pay and insufficient training cause some practitioners to leave, others remain for as long as they possibly can because of their attachment to the children. Each business must assess the needs of its own workforce, treating each practitioner as an individual, paying careful attention to their training and development needs and being sensitive to personal circumstances. Increased pay may not be an option but increased interest in their well-being will be appreciated.

Dr. Margaret C. Simms  is an educator and early years consultant at ProCEEd Consultancy based in Nottinghamshire. To find out more about Dr. Margaret C. Simms work click here.

DCSF (2007) 2006 Childcare and Early Years Providers Survey – Full daycare providers
Ofsted. (2013 a) Press Release: Good early years get children off to a flying start, says Ofsted.
Ofsted, 2013 b.
Simms, M. (2006) Recruitment and Retention of Early Years and Childcare Practitioners in Private Day Nurseries
Simms, M. (2010) PhD Thesis Retention of Early Years Practitioners in Day Nurseries (unpublished). Nottingham Trent University.