By Voice General Secretary Deborah Lawson for Early Years Educator, October 2016 (“Goodwill is not a development path”)
Career prospects for early years and childcare professionals can be heavily reliant on individuals’ resources and circumstances. The combination of low wages, poor career prospects, and reduced resources for further training and continuing professional development does not make childcare an attractive professional career option.
As the 30 hours pilots get underway, the Government’s plan to double free early education and childcare could be dealt a devastating blow by the recruitment and retention crisis. It has many contributory factors, including funding, which the government recently consulted on. Funding is only part of the issue, but recycling existing funding without additional, substantial investment will go little way to resolving the many challenges the sector faces.
To ensure recruitment and retention, a coherent career framework and pathway is required, one which ideally is supported by salary structures that reflect professionals’ skills, knowledge and responsibilities, and includes parity for early years teachers with those who teach the statutory school age range.
The crisis could, if the Government fails to listen to the sector, reach epic proportions, and will not be solved simply by increasing wages.
Its cause is the lack of a logical, sensible and practical approach to early years qualifications – primarily the GCSE requirements for those wishing to progress to level 3 and beyond.
The impact on both the career prospects of the workforce and recruitment to the workforce – at a time when the Government’s aspirations for childcare are to build capacity and expand to meet its ambitions – is phenomenal and should not be a surprise. Employers, training providers and awarding bodies flagged the issue as a barrier, not only to progression within the profession, but also to initial entry to it when government failed to consider functional skills, favouring GCSE English and Maths.
This policy is directly responsible for the significant shortfall in the number of people applying to start level 3 training this September, creating unnecessary hoops to navigate. If not reviewed and revised, this could cause a catastrophic decline in the number of qualified staff, with a subsequent impact on quality.
Decline has already led to the closure of some courses, reducing further opportunities for those who do hold the necessary academic qualifications. It is not only the number of childcare college graduates which is in steep decline; the number of apprentices and recruitment to childcare apprenticeships are down. Changes to funding for apprenticeships are not without controversy, although the relaxation of the apprenticeship levy for small employers is welcome.
Voice represents student and qualified early years and childcare staff, and has campaigned for many years for minimum entry standards for the profession. We therefore cautiously welcomed the introduction of minimum academic qualifications. We were, however, disappointed, because reliance on academic qualifications fails to consider how to retain the wealth of experience, talent and potential within the workforce, especially those dedicated individuals with career aspirations who lack the academic qualifications but who can ably demonstrate they have the equivalent functional skills.
The long-anticipated early years workforce strategy was doubtless delayed further by ministerial changes during the summer. At the time of writing, there is no indication that Caroline Dinenage, the new early years minister, will not include, as promised by her predecessor, a review of the GCSE requirements for level 3 practitioners as part of that strategy. Given the scale of the crisis, in the context of the government’s aspirations for expansion, it would be wise not only to review, but to listen to the profession.
The way to maintain and foster a sustainable and diverse sector is to build an infrastructure to match. A practical and robust workforce strategy, which includes proper career development, pathways and salary structure, is central to such an infrastructure. It is not acceptable to rely on the goodwill of the workforce, many of whom are highly qualified, having funded much of their own training to prop up the sector. They enter a profession that has no formal career or salary structure to make a difference to children’s lives. They give selflessly of their time, and their caring disposition has been taken advantage of for too long.