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'Early years education changes the course of so many lives. Yet staff are underpaid, under-appreciated and under-qualified'

A new report today reveals the alarming state of early years education – without radical government action, the sector's potential to change the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged children will diminish, writes one early years expert

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A new report today reveals the alarming state of early years education – without radical government action, the sector's potential to change the lives of vulnerable and disadvantaged children will diminish, writes one early years expert

Professional debates around the state of early years provision in England often focus on how the workforce fare in comparison to staff employed at different stages of the education system or to staff in other countries.

The broad consensus is that early years practitioners are underpaid, poorly qualified and have low status in society. The sector as a whole is plagued by high turnover rates, is fragmented between school and local authority nursery provision on the one hand and the private, voluntary and independent sector on the other – and suffers from long-term underfunding in many parts of the country.

In our new report, we set out to elaborate on these concerns. We found some interesting trends, many of which are particularly worrying in light of the increasing amount of evidence pointing to the importance of qualified staff in the early years.

Early years data

Government data shows that 79 per cent of group-based staff, 77 per cent of nursery staff, 74 percent of reception staff and 69 per cent of childminders have at least a level 3 early years qualification. However, for the first time in years, these qualification levels are on a downward trend. Survey data from National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) also shows that those with at least this qualification level declined from 83 per cent in 2015, to 75 per cent in 2016.

The availability of highly-qualified staff has also started to fall – with the percentage of two-year-olds with a graduate in the classroom falling slightly from 45 per cent in 2014 to 44 per cent in 2016. These national averages mask strong regional disparities. In London and Yorkshire and the Humber, the proportion of graduates in the workforce dropped from 47 per cent to 41 per cent and from 48 per cent to 44 per cent. Alarmingly, almost half of graduate teachers are now aged over 40, with one in five over 50 and approaching retirement. 

In general, career progression also slumped, with fewer staff now working towards higher qualifications. A complex picture of a lack of financial incentives and high costs to enroll in level 3 initial teacher training places current levels of staff qualifications at risk.

Without radical government action, we may well end up with a future early years workforce that is even less qualified than it is today.

Strategy required

Staff turnover rates in schools have repeatedly grabbed headlines – and yet turnover rates for early years staff have also been increasing over the last few years, standing as high as 14 per cent for group-based providers. This picture is even more troublesome when we break figures down by level of qualification, revealing turnover rates as high as 21 per cent for those qualified at level 3.

Looking at staff development, our report also found that working in school-based settings provides more financial incentives to progress up the career ladder. Interestingly, average pay for more junior staff in school-based provision is higher than more senior staff in group-based early years provision.

One finding representing a cause for concern is that there is an increasing reliance on unpaid staff in the early years sector, which naturally raises serious questions about skills and qualifications. In reception classes, we found that as many as 16 per cent of staff are unpaid volunteers.

There are many gaps in our knowledge about the early years workforce because of serious limitations in the data collected by the government. Nevertheless, as shown by these trends, it is clear that the problems affecting the early years workforce are complex and cannot be solved with a patchwork of isolated policies.

The sector has the potential to change the life course of vulnerable and disadvantaged children through education. It is essential that this is taken seriously – and given formal recognition through a comprehensive strategy. Progress can be made, but only if funding levels are addressed, staff development is improved and, perhaps most crucially, early years educators are afforded far greater status within the wider education sector.

Sara Bonetti, associate director of early years, Education Policy Institute

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