Understand the under-fives

16th October 1998 at 01:00
This week Labour gave Pounds 44 million to develop quality childcare.

Gillian Pugh argues that this welcome, if belated, expansion in early-years education, should also entail looking at teacher training

After many years of arguing for the importance of early education, expansion is now on the agenda. The Government's childcare and nursery education strategies include a commitment to places for all four-year-olds this year, to more places for three-year-olds, to increased out-of-school and holiday services, and, through the Pounds 540 million Sure Start initiative, to better community-based support for parents with children under three. This is good news that two years ago few of us would have thought possible.

But while welcoming the expansion, we have to question whether there is a comparable commitment to quality. The evidence from research and from all the recent major reports is that to achieve the positive outcomes that we know high- quality early education can provide for children requires highly-skilled and well-trained educators. It is extraordinary that the early-years expansion has not been accompanied by comparable developments in training.

It is now generally accepted that the early years of children's lives are critical in terms of all aspects of their development. The education and care of young children is a complex and demanding job that requires well-trained educators who understand how young children learn and how to take that learning forward.

Yet the majority of teachers working with the under-fives are not qualified to work with such young children. The majority of non-teachers have low-level qualifications, and one in 10 of those working in early-years groups has no qualifications at all, despite possibly being very experienced. Current training opportunities for early-years workers in the UK fall far short of what is required, both in terms of availability and content.

Over the past five years, a group of early-years trainers, researchers and practitioners has been meeting at the National Children's Bureau to explore the challenges of this expanding but very diverse sector, looking particularly at the kind of training that is required if early-years workers are to provide appropriate high-quality education for young children.

The very slow growth in availability of national vocational qualifications, problems of funding for students on vocational courses, the lack of interface between academic and vocational courses, and the limited opportunities for continuing professional development concerned us too.

We were also excited at the possibilities offered by the new integrated early childhood studies degrees, pioneered by members of the group, and which are now available at 15 universities.

A book launched at a conference attended by more than 200 people and addressed by Margaret Hodge, the minister responsible for the Government's early-years strategy, grew directly out of these discussions. Training to Work in the Early Years: Developing the Climbing Frame explores the kind of services that we should be providing for young children, and the skills, knowledge and understanding that all early-years educators should bring to their work. It examines developments in teacher training, in vocational qualifications and in early childhood studies degrees and points to areas where change is required. It provides a comparison with our European neighbours, and includes case studies of innovative local schemes.

Central to the book is the need for a training structure that acknowledges the very varied backgrounds of those working with young children, but provides a framework for improvements in training and continuing professional development. Hence the "climbing frame" of the title, a concept which reflects the need for access at different points and acknowledges the modular nature of many courses.

The construction of the climbing frame is under way, and there have been some encouraging recent developments. But the missing rungs (see the box on the left) need to be put in place if the increased investment in the early years is to meet the needs of our youngest children.

Dr Gillian Pugh is chief executive of the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, and was previously director of the Early Childhood Unit at the National Children's Bureau. "Training to Work in the Early Years: Developing the Climbing Frame", edited by Lesley Abbott and Gillian Pugh, is published by the Open University Press.


As part of a national early-years strategy in which the years from birth to six are seen as a distinct phase combining care and education, all early-years workers must be appropriately trained and qualified.

This will require

* one national body to take responsibility for standards, training and qualifications in the early years

* setting national targets and allocating adequate resources for an appropriately-trained early-years workforce

* the completion of the national vocational qualification framework * adequate funding for all students, but particularly mature and part-time ones

* appropriate content in all early-years training courses

* an early-years specialism in teacher training

* the development of further early childhood studies degrees, as an appropriate underpinning for teachers working with young children

* attracting more men and more students from minority ethnic groups to work with young children

* access to in-service training and continuing professional development for all early childhood workers

* a national working party to resolve differentials in pay and conditions among those in the field.

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