With COVID at record levels across early years (EY) settings, rates of staff absence are through the roof. For leaders, this represents a significant challenge that can consume the day to day business of leading the setting. Many leaders will share the experience of Sarah Hinkin, manager of the nursery at Oxford Brookes University when she says:

“Staff absence is the single most stressful aspect of my job. I have no control over being able to guarantee staff attendance and it has a huge impact on the quality of our provision. When absences are high for prolonged periods, it takes over everything as it becomes my main priority and challenge. Other important but not essential work has to take a back seat”.

EY leaders need a clear approach for dealing with the challenge of staff absence at the moment.

Learning from across the EY sector, I outline here three principles of leadership in the context of high staff absence:

  • Know, as a setting, what is non-negotiable
  • Role model a positive approach
  • Flip the script and look for development opportunities

Know, as a setting, what is non-negotiable

When staff absence is high, everyone is forced to prioritise. But doing this well depends on a clear and common understanding of what the priorities are. Leaders have an essential role to play in supporting teams to understand and commit to the non-negotiable elements of early years practice. As Polly Crowther, head of EY provision at Cobham Primary School and Evidence Leader at the East London Research School, explains:

“Educators want to do everything even when it really isn’t possible. If everyone understands what is non-negotiable in a setting, it helps to prioritise. Do we need safeguarding, nurture and play? Absolutely. Can we say the same of our Tapestry observations? Probably not, but every context is different. It is very hard for educators and carers to say ‘this is good enough’, but sometimes it has to be and it is easier if people talk openly about that.”

David Wright, owner of Paint Pots Nursery, also reflects on this when he says: “we must always consider the needs of children first their safety, safeguarding and wellbeing. We have to prioritise maintaining consistent safe spaces for children, so that they are shielded from the world of anxiety and uncertainty”.

What is non-negotiable in a setting will depend on EY national frameworks but it will also be about the particular pedagogical values and approach of the team.

Through leaders, these priorities come to life both in relatively peaceful times and times of crisis. Leaders at the moment will want to find opportunities, working with their teams, to identify the core priorities in what is happening. 10 minutes at the start of a team meeting might focus on ‘what is non-negotiable for us right now?’ and use this as the basis for current prioritisation.

Role model a positive approach

There are no two ways about it: dealing with staff absence is extremely difficult.

Even in the face of this difficulty though, leaders have to make sure they are role modelling the positive and dynamic approach that they would like their staff to take. As Sarah Hinkin explains:

“I need to be careful to not portray my own worries or stress levels. I have to role model the attitude that although this might be a challenging period, we will get through this together. It can be tough to maintain this approach when sometimes your own resilience might be dwindling, but it is key”

Leaders’ role modelling is at the core of any organisational culture. In his seminal work, “Organisational Culture and Leadership”, Edgar Schein explains that role modelling is the main way that leaders can communicate the values of an organisation to staff and particularly to newcomers. At a time when staff absence is high, there will be many new or cover staff who are encountering the organisation for the first time. They will be looking at and learning from the behaviour of the leaders they see and this will be far more important to their learning than any explicit verbal messages they receive. Hearing ‘we’re in this together’ is nowhere near as powerful as seeing a leader covering on the floor when it is required, or bolstering staff morale through positive and empathetic conversations during the day.

Flip the script and look for development opportunities

No matter how difficult the context, leaders celebrate the good things that are happening in an organisation. Jacqueline Lamb, CEO of Indigo Childcare in Glasgow, explains the importance of celebrating quality no matter what:

“As a leadership team, we’ve emphasised praising and celebrating the people that are in. we have to acknowledge that they are stepping up and acknowledge that things are tough at the moment. We’ve arranged for team lunches to be delivered or, when we can, let people get away a bit early.

We’ve focused on publicly sharing achievements of the team because often they are so busy getting on with the job, there isn’t the chance to realise their achievements and progress. It’s up to us as leaders to make sure that we carry this on, even in difficult times.”

Lamb goes onto explain that because staff are having to step up and step in as a result of staff absence, there might even be new opportunities for professional and leadership development. For example, someone might provide cover as a room leader that demonstrates their potential for this and other leadership roles in the future. In her guide “Leading for Change in Early Care and Education”, US Professor Anne Douglass explains the need for a leadership development ecosystem in EY.

This means that we need to pay more attention to cultivating leadership among EY teams and seeing the opportunities for leadership development even in less than perfect times. At the moment, leaders need to turn towards the opportunities for coaching and mentoring staff within the organisation so that they can confidently assume new responsibilities and open up new leadership pathways.


Douglass, A. L. (2017) Leading for Change in Early Care and Education: Cultivating Leadership from Within. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Schein, E. H. (2017) Organizational Culture and Leadership. 5th Edition. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

About the author:

Dr Mona Sakr is Senior Lecturer in Education and Early Childhood. As a researcher in Early Years (EY) provision, she has published extensively on creative, digital and playful pedagogies including the books ‘Digital Play in Early Childhood: What’s the Problem?’ (Sage) and ‘Creativity and Making in Early Childhood: Challenging Practitioner Perspectives’ (Bloomsbury).  

Mona's current research is an exploration of pedagogical, organisational and community leadership in EY and how leadership can be more effectively developed across EY. Current funded research includes a Nuffield Foundation project looking at online leadership development across the EY sector, a BELMAS project looking at leadership in the baby room of nurseries and a BERA project examining ethnicity in the early years workforce.  

Forthcoming books (include an introduction to Social Leadership in Early Childhood Education and Care (written with June O’Sullivan, CEO of London Early Years Foundation), and an edited volume on EY pedagogical leadership around the globe. 

Email: m.sakr@mdx.ac.uk  

Twitter: @DrMonaSakr

Expression of interest

Complete the form below if you are interested in joining our family. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Share This