By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice
On 17 January, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) produced a report, The early years workforce in England. Voice welcomed it for highlighting the factors behind the recruitment and retention crisis in the early years sector and the investment needed in the workforce.
Most of the media coverage highlighted the report’s key findings that early years staff are low paid and undervalued.
The Telegraph, however, decided to give nursery staff a kicking instead, proclaiming “Children risk falling behind by age four because nursery teachers are poorly educated, report suggests”.
First, the use of “nursery teachers” is not correct here. What The Telegraph meant was the term they use further on “early years practitioners – which includes child-minders as well as nursery teachers and assistants”. However, the issue of qualification levels in the report was not about actual nursery teachers’ qualifications:
“...there is no way to distinguish between nursery and primary education teaching professionals. Therefore, we want to remind the reader that the group ‘childcare workers’ might be a better (although not perfect) approximation for practitioners working in the private, voluntary and independent providers (PVIs) sector and as childminders, rather than for all of early years professionals. Nursery teachers grouped with primary teachers are likely to be working in maintained nurseries and nursery classes in primary schools.”
Second, and more importantly, the dedicated early years workforce is not to blame for the Government’s failure to have an early years strategy.
I wholeheartedly agree with the comments made by Kirsty Lester on the article:
“There are MANY reasons why some people consider children to be ‘failing’ at 4 and I can assure you it has very little to do with the people caring for and educating them…..The hard working, dedicated professionals in early years education are not to blame for our government’s expectation that children should reach a certain attainment level as soon as they start school.”
If we’re talking of “falling behind”, “failure”, and “persistent scandal”, it’s early years staff’s wages and Government policy that are “falling behind”, and the “failure” by successive governments over many decades to invest properly in the early years sector that is the “persistent scandal”. Early years professionals are being paid a pittance while getting the blame for government policy failings.
Back in March 2017, the Department for Education produced its Early Years Workforce Strategy, but we are still waiting for it to implement the commitments to develop the workforce made in that strategy.
In July 2018, Voice and others, expressed our concern about the decision not to proceed with the graduate feasibility study, which ended the Government’s commitment to grow the graduate early years workforce. I also raised again the findings of our joint research with PACEY into the loss of talented Early Years Teachers – an issue highlighted in previous posts.
The early years workforce has become more highly qualified in recent decades. However, recent research indicates a downward trend in qualification levels, as settings experience high staff turnover because they cannot afford to retain their experienced staff, invest in their training and development – or even recruit them in the first place.
At a time when we need more, and more highly trained and better paid early years professionals, the EPI report found that the trend is in the opposite and “wrong direction”, with falling wages and levels of training:
- “Childcare workers are often in a position of high financial insecurity.” “Pay is low.” The “low wage differential provides them with very few incentives to either upskill or stay in the sector after reaching higher qualification levels”.
It concludes that:
“early years practitioners are tasked with the important work of helping close the disadvantage gap,” yet “pay and some employment conditions are keeping the very same workers in a position of socio-economic disadvantage”.
“If the government is committed to improving the quality of early years provision, it must provide the well-informed incentives for motivated workers to not only enter, but also remain, in the sector with opportunities to upskill, better wages and improved financial security. This requires a long-term strategy that places the early years workforce at the heart of both early years and social mobility policy.”
While pay and working conditions are so pressed, we run the risk of it being a profession for only those who can afford to work in it. We could lose the skilled people needed for a highly qualified, diverse workforce. Many childcarers cannot afford to send their own children to the nurseries they work in!
There is an urgent need for the Government to develop and implement the commitments it made in its Early Years Workforce Strategy, and for a clear career pathway and national pay structure.
We need the Government not only to provide more funding, but to invest in a clear and comprehensive strategy to take the early years sector forwards.