New research published last week by the Education Policy Institute, with support from the Nuffield Foundation, confirmed that the sustainability of the early years and childcare workforce continues to be threatened by low pay and low qualifications.
While the Government acknowledges that the early years are crucial for child development and for narrowing the gap between disadvantaged children and the rest, our findings show that this does not appear to be a sector that is valued by politicians.
Since 2013, childcare workers have suffered a real-terms pay cut of 5 per cent – in stark contrast to a 2.5 per cent pay rise among the wider female working population. This means that average pay for childcare workers now stands at £8.20 per hour, and almost half are reliant on in-work state benefits.
We also find that pay is now at a similar level to that of hairdressers and beauticians, despite childcare workers being slightly more qualified. This is a real problem because young people (girls, specifically) are still often being offered a ‘hair or care’ option if they fail to achieve good results at the end of secondary school.
Having similar wage returns not only perpetuates this culture and perception that both professions are on par in terms of the necessity of qualifications and impact on societal outcomes, it also risks losing workers from the early years sector into the hair and beauty sectors.
Evidence about the importance of the early years in boosting cognitive development and protecting against longer-term adverse outcomes continues to grow, both domestically and internationally. Social mobility has been the zeitgeist of successive governments, yet none have succeeded in raising the pay, parity and esteem of the early years profession.
But that shift also needs to come from parents. If almost half of teachers were reliant on benefits, there would be national outrage. If a quarter of teachers were only educated to GCSE level, there would be national outrage. And so, if we want the Government to get a better grip on the qualifications and pay of the early years workforce, then we need parents to have the same expectations and apply the same pressure that they would if this were about schools.
As it stands, rather than building a high-calibre, highly qualified workforce, we are facing a deterioration of quality, a continuation of low pay and the leakage of staff to ‘service’ industries.