From this week, all working parents in England are entitled to an additional 15 free hours of childcare, on top of the current universal 15 hours. While the ambition has been widely welcomed, there is growing concern from providers and parents alike that this popular policy will be hindered by practical constraints.
Many employers will have to recruit more staff to fulfil the increasing demand, yet how is a sector which is already struggling to recruit people going to meet this skills gap in time? Strengthening early years apprenticeship provision could be a key part of the solution.
The newly reinvigorated apprenticeship system is a significant opportunity to build up the early years workforce and - to help to realise the ambition for a highly trained and competent practitioners who are confident and motivated. Larger employers will pay a levy and will be able to draw down funds whilst SMEs will also benefit from being able to employ staff and pay for just 10 per cent of their training themselves with Government co-investing the rest.
Announced in November 2015 and launched this May, the apprenticeship levy aims to raise £3bn a year to meet a target of three million new ‘high quality’ apprenticeships by 2020. This is a significant change to the funding landscape for apprenticeships and allows employers to take ownership of their training needs and shape their future workforce. New sector apprenticeship standards for the early years sector are currently being developed by employers which means employers are able to shape training to ensure it meets the skills needs and demands of the actual job.
But we know the early years sector already has recruitment issues. The Government’s previous decision to require Level 3 childcare apprentices to hold a GCSE in maths and English saw a significant drop in apprenticeships starts. Following concerns raised by the sector the policy was reversed and we are now beginning to see the number of apprenticeship starts return to pre-2014 levels. However, although this policy was undoubtedly a contributor to the decline in recruitment - with under-19 Level 3 apprenticeship starts remaining constant during this period - this misguided policy decision doesn’t tell the whole story.
There are many factors at play. The sector isn’t immune to all of the issues that typically impact workforce recruitment and retention. The perceived lack of career progression and the idea that early years caring is a female occupation hinder recruitment rates. That perception has to be overcome because in fact the work is fulfilling, valuable, varied and offers significant opportunities to specialise.
In its Early Years Workforce Strategy published in March, the Government committed to establishing a task and finish group to review gender diversity across the sector in more depth. This is a very welcome step forward in addressing the current gender stereotypes associated with our industry.
Effective signposting for training and jobs is also essential. Our own Great Expectations research has found that teenagers are aware of less than one in five possible occupations. There are a broad range of career paths and job opportunities within the sector, but how can young people apply for them if they don’t know they exist nor what their next step should be?
We need better link ups between schools, colleges, universities and employers to ensure young people are given up to date information and first-hand experience of these roles to enable them make informed choices about their career paths.
We know that apprenticeships aren’t the standalone solution to solving the recruitment challenge facing the industry, but with on the job training, working with employers to shape provision and effective careers advice, they can play a major role in closing this skills gap. The imminent introduction of the 30 hours free childcare policy is a timely reminder that we need to take action for parents, young children and all potential caring committed recruits out there.