Halting the deprofessionalisation of the early years workforce

Article (published as "Letting off steam") in the April 2020 Early Years Educator (EYE) Magazine

informal training group

By Deborah Lawson, General Secretary, Voice

The early years workforce has reached a crisis point that’s been building for nearly a decade. Successive governments have either ignored the issue or kicked the proverbial can down the road.

There’s a growing need for more availability and choice of childcare. England, like Scotland and Wales, has expanded the number of hours available to parents yet, according to Ofsted, although the number of places appears stable, the number of providers is falling, reducing choice and availability.  

Austerity and inadequate funding are causing providers to close, depressing wages and causing a recruitment and retention crisis. 2019 studies from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) found that many highly skilled early years professionals could earn more stacking supermarket shelves.

That is the crux of the crisis. We all know that being an early years educator is a profession, but the perception that it is not equal with other professions stubbornly prevails. 

Despite previous investment in higher level qualifications, many outside the sector still fail to recognise the qualifications, experience and professionalism of the early years workforce, and so early years professionals are not properly rewarded.

With more demands being placed on the service, it is unsustainable to expect early years settings to employ professionals but only fund them to pay staff peanuts. It’s unfair that early years teachers are not recognised or rewarded in the same way as qualified primary or secondary teachers – despite having to achieve the same academic standards.  

NatCen’s latest report, Understanding the Early Years Workforce, found that many staff pursued a career in the sector because of a love for early years education, some out of convenience, while others did so for pragmatic reasons but remained as passionate career early years professionals.  Voice’s own workforce survey highlighted that many employers rely on the ‘goodwill’ of staff to work unpaid overtime.

The need to develop and maintain a professional workforce has been an issue for nearly a decade. The Nutbrown Review of 2012 recommended higher qualifications, particularly at entry level. The Government rationalised the qualifications available, but the decision that all Level 3 Early Years Educators (EYEs) must have at least a Grade C in GCSE English and maths to count in childcare ratios had unintended consequences when equivalent and functional skills were dismissed and the forthcoming T-levels were still a spot on the horizon.  This led to a decline in recruitment to, and training for, the sector, effectively cutting off the career options of many valuable staff who found more lucrative careers elsewhere.

With the advent of T-levels, entry into the profession may be improved, but this will take time – when time is running out.

Report after report has urged government to address what we might call the professionalism crisis.

OECD’s 2019 report, Good Practice for Good Jobs in Early Childhood Education and Care, called for strategies to boost staff qualifications. EPI’s 2020 report, Early years workforce development in England, called for the Government to “develop a strategy that incentivises the early years sector to invest in and upskill their staff,” warning that “failure to support and develop the workforce could adversely impact on the quality of early years provision”.

As the EPI report found, many studies have shown that “recruitment and retention problems are linked to low wages, lack of status, poor working conditions, low qualifications levels, low opportunities for continuing professional development and a lack of a clear progression path for many early years workers”.

It was hardly surprising EPI’s report found little evidence that government policies have improved workforce qualification levels. 

In 2017, the Department for Education produced its Early Years Workforce Strategy, but we are still waiting for it to implement the Strategy’s commitments to develop the workforce. As EPI recommends, the Government must revive that Strategy, and “renew its commitment to the development of a qualified and skilled early years workforce through a long-term vision and a strategy”.

The decision not to proceed with the graduate feasibility study – which ended the Government’s commitment to grow the graduate early years workforce – was a mistake given the decline in the number of those training and working as Early Years Teachers.

The evidence is clear. If it is to raise the status of early years professionals and solve the recruitment and retention crisis, the Government must fully fund the expansion of early years and childcare to ensure providers are sustainable, and implement and invest in an early years and childcare workforce strategy supported by a career pathway and national pay structure.


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