The benefits of having graduates working in the early years are easy to identify and for us all to agree on. Graduates bring a high-quality of language that can be used with the children, the latest effective practice, and knowledge and ideas about how to motivate and challenge both children and staff.
However, retaining these graduates is challenging because the sector has historically experienced low rates of pay, and this is even more of an issue in the context of rising graduate debt.
Graduates will be paid on average £7.50 an hour to work in childcare, which equates to approximately £14,000 a year within a context of limited possibilities for career progression. But in other sectors of education, such as teaching, graduates can expect to earn starting salaries of £25,000 - £30,000.
Set against this context, we carried out a Froebel Trust-funded project which involved interviews with 33 early years practitioners working in six early years settings.
The aim was to explore the challenges facing state-maintained settings as they work towards achieving compliance with the recent policy aim of one graduate in every early years setting. The settings chosen to participate in the study were located in contrasting geographical contexts in England, including rural, suburban and urban areas.
We found settings that experienced a high turnover of graduate staff – up to three in a term –were described as the ‘brighter, more capable members of staff who could move things forward and were quite inspiring’. These graduates had left the profession due to poor rates of pay and limited opportunities for career progression. As one participant noted ‘the job doesn't pay, we could earn more if we were working at a Tesco store’.
The practitioners identified a lack of Government understanding about the realities of working in the early years, particularly in relation to pay, but also working conditions such as the need to work very long days, especially in the private sector.
A further issue raised by participants related to their experience of working alongside graduates who do not want to work in the sector but do so because it is the only graduate job they can find. This phenomenon resulted in early years practitioners with no actual passion for the work they are doing, and, despite strong academic credentials, were described by their colleagues as unable to engage with the children.
In rural areas, the need for qualified staff was identified as a key component in improving staff quality. Participants identified issues with the language, vocabulary and key concepts of staff, along with a historically low GCSE pass rate – particularly around Maths and English, which consequently meant low confidence levels.
If practitioners do not possess the underpinning theoretical, policy and pedagogic knowledge, and do not have an extended vocabulary, then they cannot pass it onto the children, particularly those from socio-economically disadvantaged family backgrounds.
While qualified professionals are important in the early years, the study found that practitioners think about professionalism in terms of relationships with children. Yet in early years settings in England, paper qualifications tend to override practical experience, resulting in capable but unqualified practitioners feeling undermined.
The need to ensure graduate pay in the sector is an imperative, but this must be balanced against the need to maintain cost thresholds that are low enough to enable parents and carers to be able to afford the care provided in the early years sector.
The Government needs to improve pay and working conditions in the sector in England if staff retention is to be successful, and some of these costs need to be met by the Government. One way this expansion could be achieved is through the extension of funded childcare places to all two–year-olds, and through increasing the funded hours for three-year-olds from 15 to 25 hours each week.
Dr Kate Hoskins is a reader in education at Brunel University London and Dr Sue Smedley is head of undergraduate taught programmes at the University of Roehampton London.
- The study, ‘Higher education provision and access for early years educators: Localised challenges arising from national policy in England, is available here