Qualification levels among early years staff are falling

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New analysis of the early years workforce reveals a worrying time for the sector, with a downward trend in the proportion of qualified staff and the prospect that in the future the workforce may be less qualified than it is now.


The younger generation working in early years are less qualified than their older counterparts, according to the survey data

The research by the Education Policy Institute warns that this could hamper the Government's expansion of funded childcare and in the longterm have a negative impact on young children.

Career progression has slowed in the workforce with fewer staff working towards higher qualifications, particularly the younger generation.

The analysis also reveals that graduate-level staff (Level 6 or higher) are more likely to be older with almost half of staff with at least a Level 6 qualification over 40, and a fifth over 50 and approaching retirement in the next ten to 15 years.

The survey also highlights how low pay remains an issue for the sector, but varies considerably, with junior school-based staff earning on average more than senior managers in private and voluntary provision.

Working in school-based settings provides more financial incentives to staff to progress up the career ladder.

The introduction of the National Minimum and Living Wages have been a positive development for workers in the sector, the report says. But planned staff wage increases are likely to drive up overall costs significantly, threatening to put some providers out of business. To compensate, this may result in providers charging parents higher fees, or hiring less-qualified staff.

Despite increasing evidence that the workforce is key to high quality early years provision, there has been a decline in the number of providers with highly-qualified staff. The percentage of two-year-olds with a graduate has been decreasing – from 45 per cent in 2014 to 44 per cent in 2016.

Key findings:

  • An increasing reliance on unpaid staff. In reception classes, as many as 16 per cent of staff are unpaid volunteers.
  • Turnover for early years staff has been increasing over the last few years, with turnover rates standing at 14 per cent for group-based providers, 8 per cent for nurseries and 9 per cent for reception.
  • Hourly rates vary widely from £8.30 in group-based provision,  £14.40 for nursery staff in school-based providers, and £15.10 for Reception staff.

The analysis draws together data about early years providers and staff from official Government sources and other sources.

The initial intention was to examine official sources, which are used as a basis for policymaking but due to ‘gaps and inconsistencies’ the report also includes information from sector organisations to provide a picture of the early years workforce.

The report’s author Sara Bonetti, associate director of Early Years at the Education Policy Institute, said, ‘While there have been some positive measures to support the early years workforce, such as increases in staff pay, our analysis highlights a number of unwelcome trends emerging, which pose a threat to the quality of provision in England. 

‘Staff qualification levels remain low – with levels even declining among staff working with the very youngest children. In the near term, a lack of highly trained staff may hinder the recent expansion of childcare entitlements. In the long-term, there is considerable risk that a continued fall in qualification levels will have a negative impact on children, particularly the most vulnerable.

‘To ensure the future sustainability of early years provision, it is vital that the Government recognises these worrying trends and takes steps to deliver on commitments set out in its workforce strategy.’

Qualifications of early years workforce

Government data shows that 79 per cent of group-based staff, 77 per cent of nursery staff, 74 per cent of reception staff and 69 per cent of childminders have at least a Level 3 early years qualification (Early Years Educator). However, for the first time in years, these qualification levels are on a downward trend. Separate survey data also shows that, overall, those with at least a Level 3 fell from 83 per cent in 2015, to 75 per cent in 2016.

In 2016, the proportion of staff not working towards a higher qualification stood at: 79 per cent for group-based providers, 82 per cent for nursery schools, 83 per cent for reception, and 92 per cent for childminders. These findings reinforce the downward trend in qualifications levels. Such trends may be down to the increasing financial strains on the sector, increasing cost of obtaining qualifications and lack of financial and status incentive to pursue higher qualifications. 

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘The first five years of a child’s life are pivotal to their long-term learning and development and yet, as this report rightly highlights, early years remains a low-pay, low-status sector.

‘While the publication of the government’s Workforce Strategy was a welcome first step towards improving the status of the sector and helping providers to attract, retain and support the career progression of early years practitioners, it’s clear that much more needs to be done to prevent a sector-wide recruitment crisis. This is particularly true in the PVI sector where, as the report notes, the gap between senior and non-senior staff pay tends to be much smaller than in maintained settings. Is it any wonder that more and more practitioners are seeking career opportunities outside the sector?

‘With many childcare providers facing an increased salary bill as the result of minimum wage increases but little to no change in government funding rates, workforce pay is inevitably going to become an even bigger challenge for the sector in the near future. If the government wants to ensure accessible, quality early care and education for all children, it needs to ensure that we have a well-qualified professional workforce to deliver this – this means investing in the sector and ensuring that childcare is, and remains, a viable career choice.’

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said, ‘The Government should be investing in early years education to give every child access to high-quality provision. That means ensuring staff are highly-qualified and well-rewarded, with funding to support this. The Government must listen to the professionals delivering early years education and to parents, who demand the best possible start for their children and recognise the quality of early years education and the need to protect it.’

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said, ‘Two key but worrying messages emerge from today’s EPI report.  First that the progress towards a better qualified early years workforce is in danger of stalling, or going backward.  We need a workforce strategy that commits new resources to supporting staff and employers to invest in the early years workforce over the long term to turn this around.  The current early years workforce strategy won’t make an impact without funding. 

‘Second, it highlights once again that we have a two tier system with a clear link between better quality, better pay and conditions and higher qualifications in the maintained sector, compared to the private and voluntary sector – although ironically early years provision in schools is now funded at the same rate as in PVIs.  Government needs to look at quality and value across the sector and how to use funding as a mechanism to drive up quality across the board.’

Voice General Secretary Deborah Lawson said, ‘We welcome publication of the report, which highlights – as has previous research from other organisations – that, sadly, the early years is a low-status, low-pay sector – despite the vital importance of the early years in children’s development and lifelong learning.

‘There is an early years recruitment and retention crisis. We know from our members and other reports that recruiting suitably qualified nursery staff is becoming extremely difficult. Salaries are not competitive and do not reflect early years professionals’ training, skills and dedication. The sector is losing highly trained professionals to better paid jobs with fewer responsibilities elsewhere and will struggle to replace them. 

‘The impact of inadequate funding rates, coupled with National Minimum Wage increases, is of grave concern for providers and may even result in less qualified, less experienced staff being appointed to more senior roles.  It is essential that we do not see a lowering of professional standards or poorer provision. If the sector’s image becomes tarnished in this way, childcare as a career choice will become even less attractive.

‘There is a clear and urgent need for the Government to develop and implement the commitments it made in its Early Years Workforce Strategy, and for a clear career pathway and national pay structure.’

Stella Ziolkowski, NDNA’s director of quality and workforce development, said, 'As we have said in our recently published 2018 Workforce Survey, Government must address the qualifications and  staffing issues being faced by the sector as a matter of urgency. This has now reached crisis levels and over time will impact severely on the Government’s expansion of funded childcare.

‘Children and families Minister Nadhim Zahawi told the Education Select Committee this morning that early years is the most important intervention Government can make to improve social mobility. Research tells us that the quality of workforce is key to the quality of provision. So Government must address the falling levels of qualifications in conjunction with recruitment and retention of the workforce. 

‘This high turnover of staff results in a lack of continuity of care for the children and expensive recruitment for nurseries who struggle to find suitable candidates.'

The Department for Education said it would continue to support graduates into the sector through funding of the Early Years Initial Teacher Training programme, including bursaries and employer incentives.

The employer trailblazer group is developing apprenticeship standards, and a career pathways document is also being developed by a panel of professionals to showcase potential career opportunities in the sector and to support improved careers advice.

The Government said it has committed £20m to support school-led professional development activity in pre-reception settings (including in PVI sector) as part of a plan to boost social mobility launched in December 2017.

Minister for children and families Nadhim Zahawi said, 'It is positive this report recognises the work underway, alongside the sector, to improve qualifications and develop a new apprenticeship route in to early years.

'We want to continue to boost the status of our dedicated early years workforce, which is why we continue to support graduates into the sector through bursaries and employer incentives, as well as developing the skills of those already working in the sector.'

  • Download the report, The early years workforce: A fragmented picture here
  • Read more on this story in next week's Nursery World out on Monday
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