A big drop in the number of learners qualifying with a Level 3 between 2014 and 2016 has put a ‘significant strain on early years settings’, according to awarding bodies and training providers.
An analysis of Ofqual figures by awarding body CACHE exclusively for Nursery World shows that between 2014 and 2016, the number of students finishing Level 3 courses halved, from 35,275 to just 17,530.
Figures for the third quarter of each year – when the majority of certificates are awarded for completed courses – show an even larger drop of around 55 per cent, from 18,000 to 8,050.
Functional skills were removed as an alternative to GCSEs in September 2014 with the new Level 3 Early Years Educator (EYE) qualification. Following this, functional skills were removed from the early years apprenticeship framework, leaving GCSEs as the principal entry (later changed to exit) requirement. The GCSE requirement was eventually removed in March this year.
Janet King, senior subject specialist childcare at CACHE, which led a campaign calling for the Government to reverse its decision on GCSEs, said, ‘The shortfall has put a significant strain on early years settings, resulting in many having to reduce the number of places they are able to offer, and for others their existence has been seriously threatened as they struggle to recruit appropriate staff.
‘It could be argued that the GCSE requirements in both English and maths created a barrier for entry to the early years workforce so critical that it threatened ratios for young children like never before, and it is this that has resulted in a significant shortfall in the number of qualified Level 3 EYEs.’
Another childcare training provider told Nursery World that the drop in learners completing Level 3 courses had affected providers who are now struggling to recruit qualified practitioners.
While training providers acknowledged that since the GCSE requirement was removed in March, the number starting the Level 3 EYE has risen, many said there is a new set of challenges to overcome, particularly with the introduction of the 30 hours.
Michael Freeston, director of quality improvement at the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said he doubted the number of Level 3 learners would recover to the level it was at previously.
The owners of PBD Training, Janet Dawson and Jenny Simanis, also said they thought it would take a while for the sector to ‘adjust and recover’, especially with the new rules coming in for apprenticeships.
Mr Freeston warned of a ‘slow-motion train crash’, particularly with the introduction of 30 hours, meaning settings will typically need more staff.
He added, ‘There is a risk of complacency with the high percentage, 85-90 per cent, of the workforce Level 3-qualified, if practitioners leave the sector. It will take some time to replace them with newly qualified staff.’
Suzi Gray, technical advisor at City & Guilds, shared his concern. In an online comment piece for Nursery World, talking about the 30 hours, she said, ‘Many employers will have to recruit more staff to fulfil the increasing demand, yet how is a sector which is already struggling to recruit going to meet this skills gap in time?’
Stella Ziolkowski, NDNA’s Director of Quality and Workforce Development, said, 'NDNA warned the Department for Education of the detrimental impact of the English and maths GCSE requirement at the outset of the consultation.
'In addition to this, NDNA had gathered and shared evidence from our workforce surveys in 2015 and 2016 with the DfE which demonstrated the huge impact that this policy was having on the GCSE requirement.
'It is clear that higher qualified staff deliver high quality early years experiences and the GCSE policy clearly worked against this. NDNA campaigned on allowing functional skills to continue to form part of the level 3 qualification, but to also provide a route for those who wished to undertake GCSE as a progression to Early Years Teacher.
'We are extremely pleased that the DfE chose to listen to the sector and implement the change to the GCSE requirement. However, it will take a number of years to rectify the damage caused. Our workforce survey findings were highlighted in the DfE’s Workforce Strategy and we will be pleased to work with the DfE to ensure they listen to the sector in the development and roll out of this.'
Busy Bees Training, which is leading the Early Years Trailblazer group – responsible for the development of the EYE Level 3 apprenticeship standard – was more positive about the situation. Its training manager Fay Gibbin said, ‘The removal of the GCSE requirements was welcomed by the majority of the sector. Although the Ofqual figures show a marked dip in learners completing their courses, given the removal of the GCSE requirements in March we may start to see numbers increase.
‘Our stance has always been that functional skills qualifications should be viewed as an equivalent to GCSEs for Level 3 apprentices in childcare. We believe that apprentices should be given the opportunity to progress through their training via the route that suits them most.
‘We aim to continue to promote the sector as a professional career choice for many prospective learners – the wider industry challenge is to show apprentices the progression opportunities available within childcare.’
A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'We know that a high-quality workforce has a significant impact on the quality of early years provision and outcomes for children.
'In March this year, we broadened the entry requirements for early years staff to enable employers to attract, retain and develop more people with the skills and passion for this rewarding profession. This means that Level 2 functional skills are accepted alongside other suitable Level 2 qualifications, including GCSEs.'