Improving early education – England’s workforce challenge

Nursery teacher plays with children.
Nursery teacher Debi Valentine plays with children.

Let’s start on a positive note. As yesterday’s Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP) data shows, more children in England are meeting an expected level of overall development at the age of five – up 3% on last year to 69%.

This is good news. It means that more children have reached a level of development which will help them hit the ground running when they start school. This is important.

Falling behind

As the evidence shows and any academic or early years professional will tell you, children who fall behind at five are much more likely to be behind at age 11.

The effect of this on life chances can be profound so news of improvement is good.

It is testament to the incredible work our early years staff carry out. More government investment and support has also played its part.

Improvement slowing

But this is by no means the whole story.

Despite the upward trend, this year’s rate of improvement has actually slowed.

While a majority of children are achieving a good overall level of development, there are still too many who don’t.

Worse still we know children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to miss this level.

Futures at risk

The job clearly isn’t done and it simply isn’t good enough that we let certain groups of children continue to slip behind their peers.

Falling behind at five threatens children’s ability to express themselves and build important early relationships – and it puts their future in jeopardy.

We need to take action

High quality childcare delivered by empowered, skilled and caring staff is key to improving outcomes for all young children.

Crucially, as our upcoming research shows, this requires provision that is led by an early years teachers – someone with a degree-level teaching qualification specialising in the early years.

We know the leadership of teachers in nurseries has a strong impact on children’s outcomes and this must be one of the key focuses of how we continue to strengthen children’s early learning.

Every member of staff working in a nursery has a huge impact on children’s learning – as well as ensuring provision is led by an early years teacher, we also need sufficient numbers of qualified and experienced nursery workers.

Troubling trends

Although both the government and the sector are committed to this agenda, we are starting to see some worrying trends.

A new survey from the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) shows staff turnover is up and the number of qualified staff is down.

According to the NDNA, turnover in the childcare sector jumped to 18% in 2016 – up from 14% in 2015.

For the first time since the NDNA started the survey, the number of non-managers with a childcare qualification at level 3 (equivalent to A Levels) above fell – dropping from 83% to 75% between 2015 and 2016.

Children missing out

When you add the Pre-school Learning Alliance and Nursery World’s latest figures to the mix the dip is hardly surprising.

According to their research the average hourly wage for early years professionals is less than half the median hourly wage of educational professionals.

Staff are underpaid, undervalued and in some cases underqualified.

Young children’s early learning is dependent on high-qualified, experienced and motivated staff. If we don’t buck these trends it will be children missing out the most.

Qualified staff needed

The key to reversing the tide is a major long-term ambition and accompanying investment to ensure that every nursery in England is led by a teacher, and that the entire workforce is supported to deliver the best possible childcare for children.

Government also needs to take steps to address the immediate barriers practitioners and settings face. As we are seeing with slowing progress, these challenges are preventing the rate of improvement in early learning we need to see for young children.

To overcome these barriers the sector needs to be able to attract suitably qualified staff, including those with strong literacy and numeracy skills, as well as better support staff to progress.

Though this is important for staff, it is also the key to giving children the best possible start in life.

Find out more about our work to give every child the best start in life.

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