It seems that concerns about the number of qualified early years staff has never been so rife. In March, EPI published new data analysis which showed a clear downward trend in the proportion of Level 3-qualified staff and highlighted the disparities in pay between staff in the PVI sector and those working in schools.
The inclusion of Education and Childcare as one of the first three T-Levels (equivalent to a Level 3 qualification) to be introduced in September 2020 might be considered as a positive step forward in meeting the recruitment and qualification challenge. However, the timetable for introducing T-Levels has long been considered a problem and perhaps overly ambitious.
These concerns came to a head last month when the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, was forced to issue a Ministerial Direction to the department’s permanent secretary, Jonathan Slater. Slater had set out his concerns that delivering T-Levels to ‘a consistently high standard’ by 2020 would be ‘very challenging’. As a result, Slater sought a Ministerial Direction from Hinds to stick to the 2020 delivery target.
It is very rare for senior civil servants to seek a Ministerial Direction; only 66 have been issued (across government departments) since 1990, and last month’s Direction was the first in the education department since the 1980s. This suggests that both the scale of concerns from officials and the strength of commitment to proceed with T-Levels are significant.
But the Government cannot afford to get this wrong. Vocational education has long been the ‘Cinderella’ route for generations and has lacked the parity of esteem of more academic qualifications. For this latest set of reforms to work, the programme needs to be high-quality and credible to both employers and participants. The Department for Education might be wise to take more time to get this right.
As it stands, the latest public disagreement about the deliverability of T-Levels by 2020 is unlikely to generate confidence from employers or potential participants. Will nursery providers, for example, be incentivised to provide work placements for a programme that has seemingly been rushed through? And if we want to create greater parity of esteem between vocational and academic routes, we need to convince parents and young people that it is a route worth taking. The concerns raised from the Department for Education, as the body ultimately responsible for this policy, casts serious doubts.