Early education and care for children aged from birth to five in England is at a critical point.
On one hand, the cost of care and education to parents at a time of high price rises is a key issue. In 2022, the average annual cost of a part-time nursery place for a child under two in Great Britain is £7,210.
At the same time, the government has been accused of “knowingly underfunding” early years settings, many of which are struggling to stay afloat. The sector is also experiencing challenges in recruiting and retaining staff. Early years educators may well be leaving for better paid retail work.
The government’s most recent early years workforce strategy for England was published in 2017. It claimed it represented “the government’s commitment to supporting the early years sector to thrive”, but the early years workforce has not seen sustained investment. There was a notable lack of reference to any funding for early years care and education in the recent autumn statement.
All children in their early years should be cared for and educated by qualified professionals. Research has found a strong relationship between the level of staff qualifications and the quality of early childhood education and care. And while the qualifications of early educators are important for all children, the impact can be particularly significant when well qualified staff are supporting the development of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
We also know that having university-educated staff makes a difference to young children’s learning. So the skills, the experience and the calibre of early years educators matters. But, while there have been some reforms in recent years, qualification levels still vary across the sector.
There is a diverse range of qualifications and professional roles in early childhood education and care, including teachers, early years educators, assistants and childminders. Research suggests that the workforce is becoming younger, less highly qualified and less experienced.
At the same time, a 2020 study by the Social Mobility Commission shows a high degree of staff turnover. The commission found that the most important barriers to a stable early childhood education and care workforce were low income, high workload and responsibilities, insufficient training and opportunities for progression and the profession’s low status and reputation.
The importance of early childhood education and care is not matched by the pay for those working in the system. Research from 2020 shows that low salaries and poor pay progression are forcing staff out of the early years sector. A report published in 2019 found that 45% of childcare workers were claiming state benefits or tax credits.
This situation has been made worse by the pandemic. Early years educators found themselves essential but undervalued, resulting in high stress levels, low morale and poor wellbeing. These conditions are unlikely to be improved by the recent government suggestion of increasing the child-to-staff ratio, which would see each member of staff working with more children.
The Irish government and early years sector have developed a comprehensive plan for qualifications and professional development alongside new funding payments made direct to nurseries and childminders. In Australia, a ten-year strategy includes a commitment to improved pay and conditions. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, there is a commitment, including funding, for all staff members to become qualified teachers in early learning centres.
In England, a simplified framework of qualifications, a plan for graduate level leaders and higher pay would be valuable improvements. These developments would not only provide a pipeline of future staff members, but would help to ensure further quality care and education for children.
The challenges that the workforce and early years settings are experiencing are evident. Improving the sector will require both political will and sustained investment.