Qualification Levels: Part 2 - Stepping up

Charlotte Goddard
Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The new Level 2 Early Years Practitioner apprenticeship has been met positively, finds Charlotte Goddard

Education and training remain a challenge across early years, and supporting childcare workers to upskill has long been a key aim. Conversations about qualifications often focus on Level 3 and above, but Level 2 is both an important stepping stone to Level 3 and a key qualification in its own right.

Level 2 allows working with children under supervision. At least one member of staff must hold a relevant Level 3 childcare qualification and at least half of all other staff working with children must hold a ‘full and relevant’ qualification at Level 2 or above.

Since 2019, new Level 2 qualifications have been labelled ‘early years practitioner’ to show they are based on criteria setting out the minimum knowledge, understanding and skills. ‘Employers appreciate the clarity of knowing exactly what the student has undertaken, and that should contribute towards a more standardised workforce,’ says CACHE director of external and regulatory affairs, Julie Hyde.

Raising the bar

In March 2020, a new Level 2 Early Years Practitioner apprenticeship was launched, following the launch of the Level 3 Early Years Educator apprenticeship the year before. Institute for Apprenticeships figures show 151 learners started the Level 2 apprenticeship in 2019/20 and 4,289 in 2020/21. Early years trainers, employers and learners are already noticing that the new Level 2 apprenticeship is more challenging than the qualification it has replaced.

‘Feedback has been positive, particularly for a route into early years for younger learners and candidates new to the sector,’ says Michael Freeston, director of quality improvement at the Early Years Alliance. ‘The new Level 2 is much more detailed and the course does better prepare an apprentice if they wish to proceed to Level 3. The underpinning knowledge and skills have narrowed the gap between the qualifications.’

Tracy Walker, quality and compliance manager at WMC Training, agrees. ‘The benchmark has definitely been raised. Level 2 now has similar responsibilities to Level 3.’

The new standards-based apprenticeship includes an end-point assessment, carried out by an independent body – previously apprentices were assessed throughout their apprenticeship so there was little incentive to revisit and retain knowledge. Emeka Nwokoye, apprenticeship programme lead at Bright Horizons, is pleased about this change. ‘This ensures that learning from the entire apprenticeship standard has been retained for use to support our children and families, as well as contributing to our individual employees’ growth and development.’

Karen Derbyshire, head of sector at training provider Realise, agrees that the shift from assessing to learning is a positive change. ‘This puts employers into focus and gives apprentices a clear career path to follow,’ she says. ‘It also allows us to tailor each programme to the individual needs of the apprentice and introduce more engaging activities such as webinars with experts in the early years sector.’

Apprentices are now graded according to their performance in the end-point assessment, achieving either a pass or distinction when previously grading was limited to a simple pass or fail. ‘The introduction of the distinction has meant those learners who are capable of, and have the commitment to, stretch themselves further can be rewarded for doing so,’ adds Ms Derbyshire.

Is Level 2 still needed?

The raising of the bar has had a mixed reception among employers. ‘Some have taken it on board and are very passionate about everybody going through Level 2 first and having that solid foundation,’ says Ms Walker. ‘There are also some that think now the qualification has moved closer to Level 3, do they really need to do Level 2?’

WMC Training, however, believes there is still a place for the qualification. ‘The extra responsibilities make practitioners feel valued within the setting,’ says Ms Walker. One challenge, however, has been communicating the higher standards to employers to ensure Level 2 apprentices are getting the experiences they need to develop their skills, she says.

The pandemic has had an inevitable impact on the first cohort of Level 2 apprentices. It has been hard for training providers to visit students and observe their work, although there have been many creative approaches such as video observations and ‘witness testimonies’.

Ms Walker says trainers are visiting nurseries once again, albeit with risk assessment firmly in place, but the pandemic is still impacting apprentices’ learning. ‘Settings are still in bubbles, and that means apprentices are not getting experiences across rooms and across different age groups,’ she explains.

Incentive payments

The Government has offered employers financial incentives of up £3,000 to take on apprentices over the past year, in addition to the £1,000 they already receive, and these have made a difference in the sector, reports Ms Derbyshire. ‘At Realise, since August 2020 we have seen the busiest period for at least a decade in terms of enrolling apprentices onto programmes, and there are no signs of it slowing down,’ she says.

‘The latest Government scheme for early years employers to receive incentive payments has been massively helpful,’ she adds. ‘The payment is different to apprenticeship levy funds, so employers can spend it on anything to support costs such as uniform, expenses and salary.’

The new standards-based apprenticeships generally have higher levels of funding attached to them, but the current Level 2 funding is not enough to properly deliver the course, says Mr Freeston. ‘We struggle to break even on each employee/learner,’ he says. ‘Funding starts only from the point they formally enrol. We find robust recruitment and induction to ensure we get the right people in the right roles is essential – but this is at our own cost.’

There are concerns that the funding bands for the Early Years Practitioner apprenticeships may be lowered by £1,000 to bring childcare funding more in line with that of health and social care apprenticeships. ‘Lowering the rate would make the EYP Apprenticeship unviable for many providers, leaving employers with less choice and what’s likely to be poorer quality provision,’ says Mr Freeston.

Learning in college

While the new Level 2 apprenticeship is popular, there is still room for the college-based route, where students learn at college and undergo placements, rather than learning on the job. This approach may be more attractive to school-leavers, for example. ‘The Level 2 qualification from a college provision is usually done by young people who have just done their GCSEs,’ says Ms Hyde. ‘Some may then stay at college and do their Level 3, or they may leave to be employed as an early years practitioner and progress to Level 3. In some instances, their placement takes them on to do their apprenticeship at Level 3.’

As the first cohort of Level 2 apprentices start to progress into Level 3 in the next few years, the impact of the changes to the qualification will start to be seen. ‘I think the overall strategy of wanting to upskill the workforce is succeeding,’ says Ms Walker. ‘Current Level 2 students are going to come into Level 3 at a higher level, and that is going to allow them to go deeper into their learning.’ The changes should also make an impact on Level 2 in its own right, she says. ‘I’d like to think that employers will value it more, and start to take on board that people are classed as qualified at Level 2,’ she says. ‘That often gets forgotten.’

Level 2 student – Joanne Harley

Joanne Harley has been working at Hickory House Nursery Bright Horizons for three and a half years as lunch cover while full-time staff take their breaks. ‘I do a lot of extra hours in addition,’ she says. ‘My manager noted this and brought the apprenticeship opportunity to my attention. At first I wondered if I could do an apprenticeship given my age – 56 – but I realised that an apprenticeship is a fantastic learning opportunity for all ages.’

Ms Harley’s husband served in the Army, which involved a lot of moving around. ‘With so much travelling involved it wasn’t easy to settle at a fixed employment location,’ she says.

She has experience as a teaching assistant and lunchtime supervisor in a primary school, as well as volunteer work with Rainbows.

‘The apprenticeship helps me understand my role a lot more by putting what I’m learning into practice daily,’ she says. ‘I have really enjoyed planning activities with the children, focusing specifically on attachment and transitions. My manager observes me and provides developmental feedback via a reflective diary, which helps.’

Ms Harley works her usual hours while spending 20 per cent of her time ‘off the job’ in study. ‘Most of my apprenticeship has been delivered remotely due to the pandemic,’ she says. ‘However, this is likely to change to a more blended learning once face-to-face visits resume.’

Support from colleagues, her manager and external trainer has been invaluable. ‘I’m a shy person and so I sometimes find being observed a bit stressful – I have the skills but sometimes lack the confidence to execute them,’ she says. ‘My management team are extremely supportive and I am constantly encouraged to undertake various tasks in order to boost my confidence.’

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