Nursery teachers are not the only answer to closing the gap

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Sue Martin, professor of early childhood education in Toronto, says that Save the Children's call for more nursery teachers is missing the mark


I have been following the discussion about the need for nursery teachers that prompted the Save the Children report 'Untapped Potential'. The outcome was quite predictable; they found what they were looking for – it was self-evident.

However, pointing to only one factor in a complex cycle facing children and families isn’t really helpful. The trouble is that we tend to want to see issues in linear dimensions because that way they are more likely to be problems that can be solved.

Maybe the teacher shortage can be solved. But is a teacher shortage the main issue? Is this what is what is needed? How strong is the research that shows that it is teachers, rather than other early years professionals, that can support children’s learning and development? It might seem intuitive to believe that teachers do a better job, but is that really true?
The  developmental outcomes for some children, in some geographic areas, where the socio-economic situations are more challenged are likely to be lower. Of course there is a greater need to support those who are in greater need, and it follows, that those in greater need are the ones who have fewer resources and less access to teachers.

The correlation between social class and educational opportunity was identified back in the 1960s and 70s, and those correlations haven’t changed. Sadly the regions in which there is the greatest poverty, deprivation, housing shortage, limited play space, levels of teen pregnancy, health challenges, access to further and higher education, and myriad compounding problems haven’t changed much in the intervening years either. Should we be surprised that few nursery teachers want to work in those areas? Certainly few emanate from those regions.

I am not suggesting that there are no success stories, no interventions that have succeeded to stem the negative tides, and no possibilities of hope, but it is often the lack of hope that is the pervasive problem that individuals grow up with, and even transmit to their children when they become parents. So few nursery teachers are there where they are most needed. The data supports that.
However, the issue is incredibly complex and includes factors such as societal attitudes toward working with young children. Pointing to the fact that there are too few nursery teachers is a small part of the problem. Those who aspire to teaching often want to work with older children because they have been impacted by the same influences as everyone else. Those who seek a college education, rather than attend university, often have different motivations and see themselves in a different light. When they enter their early years work they may find, however, that they are often treated as second class workers in educational settings. In nurseries they may have greater autonomy and that allows them to flourish.

The different types of programmes make a big impact on the children’s developmental outcomes; the early years professionals have a range of roles and responsibilities, and along with those very different purposes and pedagogies. Comparing them is like comparing apples and oranges.
There are difficulties with using a benchmark of children’s developmental progress as a measure of teacher success. Looking at the value-added component of the ‘before’ and ‘after’ programme intervention has entrenched problems concerning the bias of the developmental assessment tool.

We know that there can be difficulties with observing and assessing children because the norms are shaped according to cultural and class frameworks that tend to favour middle class children. That said, even if we trust the validity and reliability of the assessments of those children who were subjects in the research, there is a big leap to assume that any advances were attributable to teacher support, rather than other factors.  When there are multiple social dimensions and multiple interventions and resources, assuming such a correlation might be problematic.  
Maybe we suppose that teaching provides the magic bullet that is required to lift nursery children from their pit of developmental stagnation to step through stages of progression and acquire great advances in learning. I might be sounding a little sarcastic here, because my stance is that we may provide the conditions and supports for emerging development but, as Piaget, suggested, development is not going to be hurried along. I would not suggest that teachers cannot and do not support learning and development, but that they may not be the only ones who can do this.
What the report did not address was the content of preparation for the work of teachers and  'teaching'. I would challenge some assumptions that it is only the academic level of achievement that it is necessary for this responsive work. I am a nursery teacher and have trained those in colleges who work toward supposedly lesser qualifications to work with babies and young children. My experience tells me that adult learners who are engaged with material that addresses child development, observation skills, responsive caregiving, the importance of play, heath and safety and understanding behavioural challenges, are very well set for the real work.
Teachers are often prepared with child psychology, assessment, curriculum, policies and practices, educational sociology and so forth. I have taught in teacher education programmes as well as in-service (Additional Qualification courses ) for teachers. The paradigms for preparation/training- although I offer only an outline - differ tremendously. One is about caring, nurturing and facilitating children's development through play and discovery, and the other is a more teacher-directed approach that places academic demands on children, even if it is playful in manner. Often teaching mirrors the political requirements of the government, or the theoretical biases of the professors. These are content differences.
There might usefully be a meeting in the middle with a shared expertise, but the nurturing approach would be my preference, as it brings about the same learning outcomes but in a way that allows each child's development to unfold rather than to be hot-housed.
The attitudes of the educators are similarly important. It is hard to  avoid being demoralised if being labelled a second class worker, and if treated that way some don't work to their full potential. The majority of early years folks enter the profession because they want to be with children and make a difference in their lives They often get to appreciate the essence of the child’s world, whereas the teacher’s vision of the child leads them to see them in terms of progress and achievements, even if they are warm.
Dispositions are as important as content knowledge and the skills of doing the job. Whether or not these are acquired through a degree can be questioned. Some attitudes are clearly ones situated in personality rather than learned, but professionalism requires a demonstration of attitude that can be observed. That is essential in all educators whatever their rank. I would ask about whether or not an individual had the disposition for the job. Interestingly, it is usually the first thing that parents ask; 'what is the teacher like?'. They know that this is fundamental to the success of the relationship and the whole enterprise of learning.
There are many more factors that contribute to high quality child care and education than the ones mentioned in the research; I found that disappointing even though the focus was nursery teachers. The report mentions ratios, but dismisses those quickly. Research in the US has shown that on-going professional development, space, consistence of pedagogy, partnering with parents, programme monitoring, ethical practices, observation and documentation that drives practice, and various other factors also contribute significantly.  I found the comments about research in England on quality to be confusing; the criteria for quality is not so different across international borders. There are also various measures for assessing quality that are readily available.
To summarise: I think the report points to an important issue; that there is a need for more nursery teachers. That said, the evidence that it is teachers who are the primary means to address problems of developmental inequalities, is rather thin. Because of the socio-cultural context in which learning and development occurs, and the fact that there are multiple factors that contribute to high quality child care and education, it may be that nursery teachers are not the primary change agents.

If time was taken to look into the preparation of both teachers and other early years professionals, and to match that preparation with the actual needs of children, we might get a better view of how the processes of development and learning are, and could be, better supported. There are early years professionals who have content knowledge, skills and dispositions that may be better suited to the work as their preparation might dovetail rather better. Academic competence is obviously important, but it is probably not the sole indicator of who can make a real difference in the life of a child.
Conversations with Ioanna Palaiologou this week confirm her stance on the need for properly prepared teachers. Her recent study on conducting the two-year check in England showed, amongst other things, how professionals often lack skill in observation, assessment, and child development. We are both shocked at the lack of child development knowledge of many nursery teachers. 

Like me, she is frustrated with the poor insight policy makers have about the preparation of early years professionals, despite recent changes.

I became a nursery teacher over 40 years ago having first trained at the Froebel Institute in Roehampton, London. After working as a nursery teacher in Cambridge and Newham I taught nursery nurses, became an education editor at Nursery World and enjoyed life in the UK. A move to Canada in the late 1980s provided an opportunity to study there and in the US.

Teaching in Canada in childcare/schools, college and universities, and becoming an author of several textbooks, has been more than interesting. Some of the issues concerning children, education and childcare, are quite similar here, but I think there is better respect for early childhood educators (our non-bachelors degree professionals).

I offer this to support what I am saying. I think that those without a degree, but who are committed to the work and feel well prepared and up-to-date, should advocate for themselves and articulate why they are 'just as good' as their teaching colleagues.

  • Sue Martin is currently working on the 7th edition of Take a Look; observation and portfolio assessment in early childhood, Pearson Canada.
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