Alarm over Government axing of early years graduate plans

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An open letter from early years experts and unions warns the Government that the U-turn over plans to boost early years graduates will ‘deny thousands of disadvantaged children vital support’.

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Signatories include the chief executives of the National Day Nurseries Association, Early Education, and PACEY, unions the National Association of Head Teachers and Voice, and Professors Kathy Sylva and Ted Melhuish.

Last week, children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi wrote to the Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon to say that the Government would not be going ahead with a commitment from the Early Years Workforce Strategy that would have looked at how to increase graduates working in early years settings in disadvantaged areas. Also scrapped were plans to enable those with Early Years Professional Status and Early Years Teacher Status to lead nursery classes in schools.

Instead, the Government said it would be investing £20m, already announced in the social mobility action plan, in professional development in disadvantaged areas.

Co-ordinated by Save the Children, the letter from 12 leading figures says that they are ‘extremely concerned’ and ‘alarmed’ at the Government’s decision to drop its commitment to grow the graduate early years workforce. The letter calls on the Government to reverse this decision and set out a strategy to recruit and retain ‘vital early years teachers’.

It says the Government is ‘going backwards on what we already know works - early years provision led by early years teachers.

‘If you are committed to closing the development gap and boosting social mobility, the department should be raising its level of ambition for the quality of early years education rather than lowering it.’

Professor Edward Melhuish, professor of human development at Oxford University, and one of the letter’s signatories, said, ‘Investment in professional development across the early years workforce is critically important, including graduate early years teachers. Disadvantaged children stand to benefit the most, but they often do not receive this high-quality support.

‘That’s why the Government’s decision to drop its commitment to examine increasing the number of early years teachers in disadvantaged areas is so disappointing. It is a step in the wrong direction and delays progress on the quality of early education and improving children’s attainment, particularly amongst the most disadvantaged children.’

In his letter to Mr Halfon, Mr Zahawi had referred to Professor Melhuish's earlier oral evidence to the committee for pointing to the huge potential of investment across the wider workforce to bring about improvements in quality and children's attainment.

Steven McIntosh, director of UK poverty policy, advocacy and campaigns at Save the Children, said of the Government’s decision to drop the commitment, ‘This is particularly disappointing because ministers have set out a clear ambition to improve children’s pre-school learning. The new Education Secretary has described the early years as the “point of greatest leverage” for improving social mobility. The Government’s social mobility action plan champions the potential for childcare led by highly skilled staff to tackle disadvantage. But we are not seeing action to back this up.

‘Ministers accept the need to close the early learning gap as a key route to tackling disadvantage, they accept the role that early years teachers play in doing this and they accept that there is a major challenge with recruitment and retention. Abandoning their commitment to address it is simply unacceptable and represents a major setback for efforts to tackle educational disadvantage.’

In response, children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi said, ‘We are determined to make sure that every child gets the best start in life – which is why, as announced in the social mobility action plan, we are investing £20 million in professional development support for early years staff in some of the most disadvantaged areas across the country. 

'We also support low income families with access to high quality early years by offering 15 hours a week of free childcare to the most deprived two-year-olds, which almost 750,000 children are already benefiting from. This is on top of our 15 hours free childcare offer for all three-and-four-year-olds, with 30 hours available for working families. We also continue to offer graduate routes into the early years sector, including Early Years Initial Teacher Training.’

THE LETTER IN FULL

Dear Minister,

Strong early development is the foundation upon which life chances are built. Evidence shows children with poor levels of development at age five are more likely to struggle throughout primary and secondary school, impacting their chances of success well into adulthood.

We welcome the Government’s ambition to close the early learning gap for the most disadvantaged children. However, we are extremely concerned that you have decided to drop your commitment to grow the graduate early years workforce. This will deny thousands of disadvantaged children vital support that can set them up for life.

As you know, early years practitioners work tirelessly to ensure that children have the best start to life, but they require more support from government. The evidence, and many of our organisations’ work with children and families, show that high quality early education led by specialist graduate early years teachers make a decisive difference in boosting the early development of children, particularly in literacy and for those most likely to fall behind.

Graduate early years teachers are one of the strongest indicators of high quality education for England’s preschool children. Early years teachers are adept at supporting children to learn in a nursery setting and are skilled in observing children’s progress to best support those at risk of falling behind. They also play an important role in working with other staff and crucially parents – giving them the support they need to help with their children’s learning at home.

There is a critical shortage of early years teachers across the country. The numbers starting early years initial teacher training have plummeted and many existing graduate level staff are approaching retirement age. With a wider retention crisis in the sector, the problem only stands to get worse, as we lose level 3 practitioners who have minimal support to progress onto graduate study and little reward or recognition when they do.

The commitment set out in the Early Years Workforce Strategy to conduct a feasibility study into growing the graduate workforce was an important step towards addressing this problem and understanding what works in boosting recruitment and retention in early education.

The Department is making welcome investment in identifying new approaches to supporting children’s early learning, yet we are alarmed that the Department is going backwards on what we already know works – early years provision led by early years teachers.

If you are committed to closing the early development gap and boosting social mobility, the department should be raising its level of ambition for the quality of early years education rather than lowering it.

Signed by:

Lydia Cuddy-Gibbs, head of early years, Ark Academy

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive, Early Education

Paul Whiteman, general secretary, National Association of Head Teachers

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive, National Day Nurseries Association

Sandra Mathers, senior researcher, Oxford University

Edward Melhuish, professor of human development, Oxford University

Kathy Sylva, professor of educational psychology, Oxford University

Liz Bayram, chief executive, Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years

Steven McIntosh, director of UK poverty policy, advocacy and campaigns, Save the Children

Sally Pearse, head of early years initial teacher training, Sheffield Hallam University, and early years lead for South Yorkshire Futures

Deborah Lawson, general secretary, Voice the Union

Elizabeth Kilbey, clinical psychologist

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