Unpaid volunteers make up more than one in seven staff in Reception classes, according to new analysis out today.
The report from the Education Policy Institute into the qualifications and pay of people working in early years shows that 15.5 per cent of staff working in Reception classes are unpaid (including placement students), and 6.3 per cent are temporary staff.
This compared with 10.8 per cent of staff in nursery classes being unpaid, although there are more temporary staff in nursery classes – making up 8.9 per cent of the workforce.
Sara Bonetti, author of the report Early years workforce: a fragmented picture, said: "As Reception teachers are key for the development of reading, writing and maths abilities, as well as critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, there is danger that over-reliance on unpaid staff might compromise the delivery of high-quality provision at such a critical age."
The report warns that qualification levels across the sector are falling – and courses leading to early years teacher status (EYTS) that were introduced in 2013 to boost the number of graduates working with young children are being shunned.
It points out that EYTS has the same entry requirements as QTS courses, but EYTS is not equivalent to QTS and does not allow holders to teach in schools.
The numbers taking the course have dropped for three years running, with just 595 students enrolled in 2017, compared with a government target of 2,400, and nursery workers have said they are not interested in taking it because it will not improve their salary, career opportunities or status.
The report looks at the whole early years sector, which has 25,500 private, voluntary or independent nurseries, 17,925 schools and 46,600 childminders.
It says that overall there is a downward trend in qualification levels and that working in school-based settings gives staff a financial incentive to progress up the career ladder.
It also says that the proportion of two-year-olds in schools or classrooms with qualified teachers or early years teachers has fallen, while the number of three- and four-year-olds with qualified teachers in the classroom is rising.
Early years 'needs investment'
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of NAHT heads' union, said that the report was "worrying".
"Early years is the most crucial phase of education," he said. "If children fall behind at this stage, it can prove difficult, often impossible, for them to catch up later, even with additional help.
"It is, therefore, obvious that the most cost-effective way to improve educational outcomes for all children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, is by investing in early years education.
"But we know that it is not just any early years experience that matters. Early years provision needs to be of high-quality to have a positive and lasting impact on children’s outcomes. So it is worrying that EPI’s data shows a downward trend in qualification levels. Less than half of eligible two-year-olds take up their free hours entitlement at an early years provider with QTS/EYTS/EYPS qualified staff, and it’s not much better for three- to four-year-olds.”
Judy Shaw, headteacher of Tuel Lane Infant School, in Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire, the chair of NAHT’s Early Years Council, said: “Recruitment and retention of well-qualified early years staff is becoming harder and harder. High-quality early years education makes a difference and changes lives.
"Competition between qualified teachers, graduates and good practitioners to work in the early years sector should be fierce. It should be an attractive career offering good professional development and remuneration. That is certainly not the situation we find ourselves in at the moment."
Nadhim Zahawi, minister for children and families, said: "We want to continue to boost the status of our dedicated early years workforce, which is why we continue to support graduates into the sector through bursaries and employer incentives, as well as developing the skills of those already working in the sector."