By Voice General Secretary Deborah Lawson for Early Years Educator, February 2017
Early years issues remain high profile. That is exactly as it should be with so many to address. The major issues for the sector and profession are funding, staff recruitment and retention, and the expansion of the free childcare entitlement. All are interlinked and so addressing one without understanding the relationships, inter-dependencies and impact on the others is a failure not only to understand the complexity of the sector and issues, but also the market and wider economic context.
Funding and government investment have the biggest impact on all issues. The aim of the additional childcare entitlement is to reduce the cost of childcare for parents, and in doing so support families to work, progress their careers and achieve a work-life balance. This is a laudable government aspiration, and one which those who work in early years, many of whom have families, seek to achieve but often find difficult because of the necessity to plan and prepare at home outside of their working hours, which are all used providing quality education and childcare for children.
The aim of early years funding and the investment frequently quoted by government is, it seems, required to do many things. It is expected to reduce the cost of childcare, making it more affordable for working parents; raise the rate paid to providers, increasing viability; and enable those working in the sector to be suitably rewarded in order to incentivise recruitment to, and retention and career progression within, the workforce.
We hope that the long-anticipated early years workforce strategy will be accompanied by a similar commitment to funding and investment to support career progression through CPD and qualification training. Competing priorities, however, present dilemmas. The question remains whether the level of investment is sufficient to meet government aspirations for affordability, cost and reward to the profession – taking into account the wealth of qualification, skills and experience necessary for quality – or whether the sector is required to make do and mend again.
Competing priorities for available funding are not confined to early years. All sectors of care, education, industry and business are competing for a lion’s share of funding. Numerous reports and surveys provide abundant evidence to demonstrate why government should prioritise a particular sector of work, education or society for more funding. We are all competing for the same finite pot of money. The early years and education are not alone, but it is essential that the early years remain in priority position when it comes to decisions about investment and funding.
The early years sector is diverse. It provides choice through many different types of provision, from group education and care to that provided in the home by nannies and childminders. The latest Ofsted annual report shows that, despite its difficulties, the early years sector is improving, with more settings judged good or outstanding. This is testament to the profession, but can the upward trajectory be maintained indefinitely if question marks remain over the level of investment and funding?
Diversity provides choice and has led, over time, to a number of different early years representative organisations. Some, like Voice, represent specific groups within the sector, be that the professional workforce, providers, types of providers, children or parents. All have unique perspectives that are valid, legitimate and necessary. However, is it time for the sector, collectively, to engage more with other sectors to raise awareness of the impact of early education and childcare on the current and future workforce and highlight economic benefit?
Commenting on a recent survey, the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) said that government should consider the childcare system as part of Britain’s core business infrastructure in the same way that it thinks of energy or broadband.
Early years and childcare professionals and providers want to make a difference to children’s lives. With sufficient investment, the sector will have the tools and resources to make a difference in a sustainable way; a way which could benefit children, the workforce, providers, parents, government and the growth of business. It is time to consider early years and childcare in the context of its impact on the wider economy and raise its position accordingly – and time for sector organisations to provide the collaborative platform to achieve it.