Beatrice Merrick discusses our latest report on early years policy and looks at what needs to be done to create a sustainable, high-quality system. 

A new report by the Centre for Research in Early Childhood (CREC) for the Sutton Trust asks how far we have progressed on Early Years Workforce policy since the landmark Nutbrown Review was published in 2012. The answer is: frustratingly little. Only five out of 18 recommendations for action were fully actioned by government. Eight years on, the early years workforce remains under-paid, with limited opportunities for career progression and lacking the status and respect accorded to their peers in other parts of the education system.

There has been no progress on the demands to raise the quality of the workforce by a gradual move to make Level 3 (or A-level equivalents) the benchmark qualification for practitioners. Settings have been given no incentive to raise the qualifications profile of their workforce – quite the opposite, with funding driven down to the minimum which does not try to calculate how quality affects value for money.

Recruitment to Level 3 qualifications was impacted by the attempt to implement a requirement for maths and English GCSE entry requirements, as recommended in Nutbrown to raise standards of literacy and numeracy in the profession. Raising the entry requirements and neither addressing the reasons why typical entrants might lack these qualifications nor seeking to recruit from a more highly qualified pool of applicants, was always doomed to fail in the short term.

Ignoring the recommendation to create a graduate early years teaching qualification within the Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) framework has also led to a self-defeating policy. Early Years Teacher (EYT) status, which requires the same entry requirements and study time as QTS but does not lead to parity of pay, status or conditions, has quickly lost its appeal.  The dramatic fall in numbers registering for EYT courses shows practitioners voting with their feet. This is frustrating after the Graduate Leader Fund had been shown to be a viable way of increasing the number of graduates in the sector, and their positive impact. The reality is that unless government closes the pay gap between the maintained sector and the rest, graduates will always be drawn from the latter to the former.

Opportunities for staff to progress, and for the expertise within the sector to be retained and enhanced are also lacking. As the CREC report identifies, opportunities for CPD have declined as the central early years spend of local authorities has been capped, the cost of taking qualifications has increased and the prospects of enhanced qualifications leading to promotion or enhanced pay have declined. Providers’ shrinking margins reduce the scope to fund CPD. This is not a recipe for retention or staff satisfaction.

There are also crucial issues of equality and diversity identified by Nutbrown that remain unaddressed. The recommendation that “the Department for Education should conduct research on the number of BME staff at different qualification levels, and engage with the sector to address any issues identified” resonates as an issue government can no longer ignore.

As the report identifies, the sector’s recruitment crisis has, if anything, worsened. Early years practitioners are voting with their feet and going to work in other sectors for better pay and less stress. The report was written before the pandemic sent a financially fragile sector teetering closer to the cliff edge. The recruitment and retention crisis is amplified by uncertainty about how many providers will survive, and how many staff will still have a job in the coming year.

Yet in some quarters, there is recognition of the vital role of the early years sector, especially in the face of the pandemic. There have been calls from organisations including the TUC, The Fawcett Society, Mumsnet and Gingerbread for government support to provide the crucial childcare infrastructure that parents need. The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Commission have highlighted the need for the sector to promote child development and social mobility to offset the impact of the pandemic on those likely to be hardest hit.

What these calls highlight is that, despite its crucial place in the infrastructure, early childhood education is not treated on a par with other vital public services, including the statutory education system. Because it has not been viewed and funded as a public service, at a time of crisis like the present, when it is most needed, it is also at its most vulnerable. It is the fragmented nature of the system which directly leads to the workforce problems set out above.

There is no logic to the divide in qualifications, pay and conditions between the maintained and non-maintained sector. It is self-evident that whatever type of setting a child is learning in, their need to be taught and cared for by well-qualified early years practitioners is the same. And, as Cameron points out, other countries have over-come the problem of the split workforce to achieve better quality outcomes; given the political will, England could do the same. This is among the challenges facing the new Early Years Workforce Commission of sector organisations, providers and awarding organisations, which is working to identify solutions to a range of workforce challenges.

We hope that, eight years after the Nutbrown Review pointed the way on many of these issues, we will see stronger action from government on the key issues that remain untackled.

Beatrice Merrick is Chief Executive of Early Education and a member of the Early Years Workforce Commission.

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