By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice

I hesitate to use the ‘B’ word, but I’m afraid I need to: ‘Brexit’! Before you stop reading, let me explain. I’m not taking sides, but Brexit does have relevance to the future of the early years workforce.

First, Brexit has paralysed the machinery of government, with ministers’ and civil servants’ attention diverted, and a lack of forward planning and commitment from a Government that doesn’t know whether it will survive the week, let alone until the next scheduled election.

Secondly, Brexit has become synonymous with ‘strategy’ and ‘plans’.  There has been much talk of the need for the Government to have a ‘Plan B’.  In terms of the early years sector, it needs to have a Plan A – in other words, a Plan.

Back in March 2017, the Department for Education produced its Early Years Workforce Strategy. Voice welcomed the Government’s commitment, but we are still waiting for it to implement the commitments to develop the workforce made in that strategy.

Sadly, that isn’t the only example of a lack of long-term strategic commitment.

In July 2018, Voice, individually and with 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 articles

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.

These observations have been reinforced by analysis in the Education Policy Institute (EPI)’s report, The early years workforce in England. Voice has been warning of the recruitment and retention crisis in the early years sector, and this timely report provides more evidence of the factors behind it.

It shows that, at a time when we need more, and more highly trained and better paid early years professionals, the trend is in the opposite and “wrong direction”, with falling wages and levels of training. Its key findings include:

  • “Qualification levels might be even lower in the future as the workforce is ageing and fewer employees are upskilling. The proportion of childcare workers studying towards a higher qualification has fallen.”  The ageing of the workforce is a worrying trend we have been warning about for some time.
  • “The childcare workforce lacks diversity. In 2018, 7.4 per cent of childcare workers were male, with the proportion being lower for nursery nurses and assistants (1.8 per cent).”
  • “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.”

I agree wholeheartedly.  The early years workforce should be diverse and reflect the communities it serves. However, 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.  That strategy must not only ‘place’ the early years workforce at its ‘heart’, it must involve them in developing the strategy and policy, too. After all, they are the ones who work with our children and implement childcare policy – not politicians and civil servants and commentators whose eyes are on the next Commons vote and the next election.

Yes, Brexit is critically important to the short and long-term future of this country, but so are the children who will live that future and take this country forwards when today’s politicians are no longer around, and those who develop and shape their development in nurseries and classrooms.

Early years professionals have had enough of being ‘done to’. Just as backbench MPs want to ‘take back control’ of Brexit, so the early years workforce wants to take control of its professional practice – and be trained, recognised and properly paid for doing so.  

Further information

Commenting on the publication (7 February 2019) of the Commons Education Committee’s report, Tackling disadvantage in the early years, Deborah Lawson said:

“It is good to see that the Committee has recognised the same issues in its report.”




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