Save the Children's ‘Untapped Potential’ report highlights how children without access to an early years teacher are almost 10 per cent less likely to meet the expected levels of development when they start school.
The charity warns that the negative impact of shrinking numbers of graduate-level staff are being felt most in deprived areas, and urges the Government to invest ‘urgently’ in the sector to prevent children ‘falling through the net’.
It could do this via adding a 'workforce quality supplement' to the new early years national funding formula, and by first targeting deprived areas with a share of £65m a year of extra investment.
Early years leaders welcomed the calls for change, but expressed concern that the report could be seen a snub to non-graduates, pointing out that some of the best early years practitioners 'don't have a degree’.
While all nurseries have staff who are trained to care for children, not all successful nurseries have a qualified early years teacher among their staff.
However, those children who do fall behind are left struggling with basic skills like speaking full sentences, using tenses, and following simple instructions.
Gareth Jenkins, director of UK poverty at Save the Children, described the findings as ‘incredibly worrying’.
‘Nurseries do an incredible job nurturing our children, but many are struggling to afford and recruit the qualified teachers they need to give children this support and support their workforce with more training and development,’ said Mr Jenkins.
‘If the Government is serious about creating a country that works for everyone, it’s crucial we urgently invest in a qualified teacher for every nursery across the country – giving children the support they need to reach their full potential.’
Children who start behind are also more likely to stay behind throughout their school years and beyond into their work lives, according to previous research by the charity.
The number of applicants for the teaching roles has dropped dramatically to 860 last year, from more than 2,300 the previous year, which the charity claims is well below the number needed to fill the gaps. (Figures from the National College for Teaching and Leadership’s annual reports).
A shrinking number of available positions, poor salaries, and a lack of promotion opportunities is driving this chronic shortage as nurseries around the country struggle to cope with funding pressures and afford the costs of training and recruitment.
Shropshire, Hull and the London borough of Newham are the worst affected with less than 20 per cent of children in independent settings getting access to a qualified nursery teacher. Children in Bristol, Brighton and Hove, and Sunderland have the greatest access.
While the poorest areas are generally the worst affected, wealthier locations are also under resourced by teachers to help children develop their early language skills, identify those who are struggling, and help them catch up by the time they reach school.
Children in the West Midlands were the least likely to benefit from a trained teacher, with 58 per cent of them not having one in their setting.
In the northwest the rate is 45 per cent of children, and even in the southeast the level was 50 per cent.
The charity called on the Government to target funding beginning in the 20 per cent most deprived areas of the country, including Blackpool, Oldham, Birmingham, and Barking.
Clinical psychologist Dr Elizabeth Kilbey, who has appeared on the television series ‘Secret Life of Four Year Olds’, said, ‘Having an early years teacher in a nursery can make all the difference to a child’s future.
‘We know that during the early years a child’s brain is developing at its quickest rate - and that language and communication skills are the building blocks for everything else they will learn, including subjects like maths and sciences.
‘But crucially, it also gives children the tools they need to build their self-esteem and confidence, and develop positive relationships with everyone around them.
‘Sadly, so many nurseries are struggling to afford to hire qualified teachers, and until they can, children will continue to slip through the net.’
'Compulsory early years education'
A range of responses to the research have come from the sector and one right-leaning body controversially recommended making it compulsory for children to be signed up for the free childcare, and suggested scrapping the 30-hours expansion in favour of investment in graduates.
Pre-school is 'the most important part of the education system', said Ryan Shorthouse, director of conservative think-tank Bright Blue, adding, 'The Government should abandon extending the early years free entitlement from 15 hours to 30 hours a week for all three- and four- year-olds.
'Instead, it should use this extra funding to attract and retain graduates to teach in pre-school settings, especially in the poorest areas.
'Participation in the Early Years Free Entitlement should be compulsory for all three- and four- year-olds, meaning this country will see the start of compulsory education lowered.'
Claire Schofield, director of policy, membership and communications at the National Day Nurseries Association, which recently published its Workforce Survey, highlighted the achievements of the sector despite big challenges.Encouraging numbers include 90 per cent of nurseries in England currently rated good or outstanding by Ofsted.
However Ms Schofield said that with 69 per cent of pre-school children achieving their learning goals, still ‘too many are falling short’.
She added, ‘We agree with Save The Children that investment in early years education is vital and makes the biggest difference to children’s educational chances.
‘The private, voluntary and independent nursery sector is doing exceptionally well, especially given the current, tough funding environment and in the face of looming a workforce recruitment crisis.’
She continued,’ The starting point must be the right funding for the forthcoming 30 free hours offer to three and four-year-olds of working parents across England from September next year.
‘Settings need to be able to deliver these hours and balance their books. As things stand, hourly rates offered to nurseries in many local authority areas are falling far short of what is needed to cover the cost of high-quality places.
‘The nursery sector also needs a well-qualified workforce and more early years teachers. Many settings do employ graduate teachers but many more simply can’t afford to under their current financial circumstances.’
Ms Schofield underlined the role of the GCSE requirement which is one of the bars to career progression and which the sector hopes will be addressed in the Government’s forthcoming workforce strategy.
Save the Children has also recommended the Government publishes the long-awaited strategy before the end of this year.
The Alliance’s Mr Leitch echoed those points and added, ‘Some of the best early years practitioners don't have a degree, but have expertise, passion and an in-depth understanding of how children learn and develop.
'These are skills to be valued, not dismissed.’
Liz Bayram, PACEY's chief executive said the membership organisation 'strongly supports' the recommendation for a quality supplement.
'However, increasing the number of early years teachers is not in itself a magic bullet,' said Ms Bayram.
'It is also crucial to recognise the contribution that non-graduate practitioners, including childminders, make to providing high quality care and education for children.
'Most practitioners hold a Level 3 early years qualification, and they need to be supported to further develop their skillsets and progress within their profession.
'Whilst qualifications have an important role in raising the quality of childcare, research has shown that continuing professional development (CPD) is equally essential in order to maintain a high quality and up-to-date early years practice.
'The Government’s workforce strategy must recognise and support the need for more high-quality CPD delivered in flexible, cost-effective and innovative ways.'
Tulip Siddiq MP, shadow minister for early years, said, 'The nationwide shortage of trained nursery teachers is deeply worrying.
'As the effects of fewer qualified staff are felt more acutely in areas of greater deprivation, Government inaction is creating a situation where children are at risk of a disadvantaged start in life, simply because of where they were born.
'The Tories have ignored this area for too long and in doing so are failing to put working families first. It’s time they put a real strategy in place to ensure a childcare system that delivers for children, parents and the economy.'
A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'To date, we have trained over 16,000 specialist early years graduates and a record number of providers are now rated Good or Outstanding.
'But we want to get the best staff working in our nurseries and pre-schools so that every child has learnt the basics before they start school and can go on to reach their full potential.
'We are developing a workforce strategy that aims to remove the barriers to attracting, retaining and developing great people and we will be investing a record £6 billion in childcare by the end of this Parliament. This is backed up the fairer funding system we are introducing for early years providers, so that money goes to the areas that need it most.'