Recent policy changes have largely failed to develop skills among early years staff – leaving the workforce in a "state of uncertainty", a new report has found.
The government is being urged to develop a "long-term vision" to build a qualified and skilled early years workforce, as Education Policy Institute (EPI) research suggests that frequent policy changes over the past decade have culminated in a "missed opportunity for real impact".
The report, which examined four major early years policies spanning nearly 15 years, blamed "short-lived", "disconnected" and under-resourced initiatives for the lack of evidence to suggest an improvement in workforce qualifications.
The news comes after Daniel Sobel, CEO and founder of consultancy Inclusion Expert, told Tes that an unskilled workforce is the "heart of the matter around early years".
Speaking at an early years education conference in central London this week, he said: "It's ridiculous that we have very large swathes of the early years workforce which are simply not trained to meet the needs of our children."
The policies analysed by the EPI were the Graduate Leader Fund (2007-11); minimum GCSE grade requirement for workers (2014-17); the early years entitlement expansion for two-year-olds (2014-present); and the early years entitlement expansion for three- and four-year-olds (2017-present).
While the report found that the Graduate Leader Fund was "successful in setting the early years sector on a path towards increasing workers' qualification levels", it said it could not "clearly measure" the effects of the other three policies.
The report said: "One of the key differences between the Graduate Leader Fund and the other policies is that the former was shaped according to some key characteristics of policy success that the others lack: it was evidence-based, it was set within a wider and long-term workforce strategy, it was properly funded and provided the right types incentives for settings to employ high qualified staff."
The research found that the expansion of entitlements was accompanied by an increase in the total number of early years staff, from 272,900 workers in 2014 to 298,500 in 2018. But qualification levels over the same period failed to improve.
Meanwhile, the minimum GCSE grade requirement for key staff, whereby workers were required to have a grade C or above in GCSE English and maths, was "too strict to enable employers to attract, retain and develop early years professionals".
The EPI said a "long-term vision" for developing a qualified and skilled workforce was necessary to "tackle issues that are deep-seated in a system based on mixed economy of providers".
It also called on the government to establish a "one-stop-shop" for people in the sector to access key information regarding training and qualifications.
Sara Bonetti, director of early years at the EPI and author of the report, said failure to secure the early years workforce in future could risk "widening the attainment gap".
"This report shows that many interventions over the last decade have failed to do enough to either attract those with higher qualifications into the sector or develop the skills of existing workers," she said.
"The government should draw lessons from those policies that have been successful and develop a long-term plan for upskilling workers for the new decade."
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: "Conservative governments have had 10 years in which to develop a qualified and skilled early years workforce – and they have failed to do so. Instead, ministers have devoted their attention to unpopular and ideologically driven proposals for changing the early years foundation stage.
"Government should learn the lesson of this report: serious change begins with funding, and with a sustained programme to improve workforce qualifications."
James Bowen, director of policy at headteachers' union NAHT, added: "Over the last decade the early years sector has been buffeted by a raft of conflicting policy measures from central government.
"What we now need to see is a strong commitment to long-term investment in the early years workforce so that all professionals can access high quality professional development and children get the very best possible provision."
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: "We have invested £20 million to improving training and development for our early years workforce, particularly targeted at disadvantaged areas.
"We have also worked with the early years sector to support progression through better qualifications, more apprenticeship opportunities and ensuring there are routes to graduate level qualifications."