The first day of school is an important day for any child. But imagine if, when you arrived, you were already behind the other children in key skills. Imagine struggling to express yourself, understand what the teacher is telling you, take part in group activities and follow instructions. That would put you on the back foot from the word go, and make it much harder to learn in the classroom. As other children progressed, you might find yourself falling further behind, and you may never catch up.
This was the reality for the 185,000 children who started school this year without reaching a good level of development. And new figures released this week show that poorer children are even more likely to start school lacking these basic skills: this year, two in five children in poverty didn’t reach a good level of development at age five, compared to a quarter of other children. That’s a gap of 17pp – which has barely shifted since 2013.
The role of early years teachers
High-quality childcare plays a crucial role in helping children gain fundamental skills and giving poorer children the experiences they need to catch up, particularly where this is led by graduate early years teachers.
While all staff who work in the nursery are important, early years teachers can have a particular impact in supporting poor children. They are specially trained in children’s development, can identify those who need extra help, support other staff, and work with families to help a child learn at home as well as at nursery.
But recruitment of early years teachers is in crisis. This year, only 365 people enrolled on early years initial teacher training courses – a decrease of a third since last year. At the same time, there is a shortage of 11,000 early years teachers in England’s nurseries, and nearly half of children attend childcare without a graduate.
New research sheds light on the reasons behind this and sets out what needs to be done
Our new report, It All Starts Here: Tackling the crisis in the early years teacher workforce, explores the reasons behind this decrease and sets out recommendations for the government, based on research with over 50 members of the childcare workforce.
We spoke to nursery managers who say they would love to hire graduate staff, but they can’t afford to pay them the higher salaries they expect and deserve. We spoke to early years teachers who are passionate about their job but are being driven out of the sector by low pay and limited progression opportunities. And we spoke to childcare workers who want to increase their qualifications and do the best they can for children, but don’t see remaining in the sector as a viable career.
Solving these problems isn’t simple, but there are practical steps which the government can take right away. We’re calling on the government to invest so that nurseries can afford to hire and retain graduates, starting in the most disadvantaged areas where they are most needed. Trialling early career payments and salary supplement schemes, similar to those that already exist for other teachers of shortage subjects, could have an important effect of boosting salaries and helping highly skilled workers to remain in the sector.
This should be an urgent priority for the government. It’s not right that poverty holds children back when their lives have barely begun – the government must act now, or risk leaving a generation of children behind.