David Cameron has created a National Childcare Commission in the wake of Professor Cathy Nutbrown’s review of qualifications for the Early Years workforce. Nutbrown wants tougher entry requirements, starting at level 3, to raise the quality and status of childcare workers. Meanwhile, Elizabeth Truss MP, in a recent report for the think tank Centreforum, calls for complete deregulation and a stripping away of qualifications she insists are unnecessary.

How does this sit alongside Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s latest pledge to ensure free childcare places for an additional 260,000 of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds by 2014? He says he wants qualified staff to do the job. So, how do colleges and other providers go about training the army of staff needed within two years? Or will Truss’s arguments win out?

The challenge for the new commission will be to ensure that cutting costs does not take precedence over the urgent need to improve the quality of childcare – a difficult task given the state of the economy. But decades of research evidence tell us that cost-cutting is a false economy and argues persuasively for rigorous high-quality initial training and continuous professional development.

With high quality training and small childcare groups, there is a greater tendency towards self improvement.

A meta-analysis of international research, by the Thomas Coram Research Unit at the Institute of Education, showed conclusively that training, staff ratios and group size “have a direct impact on the ability of staff to provide sensitive, responsive care for children.” No research since that report in 2002 has contradicted this, as the Nutbrown review shows. Only competency-based training can provide childcare staff with the necessary skills and supportive theory.

A deeper argument emerges repeatedly in inspection reports on best providers. The Thomas Coram report echoes this: “In provision with high staff-child ratios, staff are more likely to be well qualified, have access to training, be better paid, and be less likely to leave their jobs. In high quality settings, staff spend more time planning how to deliver the curriculum, keep more effective records on the children in their care, and communicate more effectively with parents.”

In other words, with high quality training and small childcare groups, there is a greater tendency towards self improvement and, therefore, greater demand from parents. We know too from similar studies that such children are healthier and are more likely to find sustainable employment when older. This makes a strong business case: such spending is an investment not a cost.

The Council for Awards in Care, Health and Education (CACHE) has been the major provider of high quality qualifications in the children’s sector for 67 years, ever since it wrote the first national Nursery Education Board (NNEB) qualification in 1945. It is committed to providing quality and rigorously monitors the standards of all training providers who offer its qualifications.

Evidence shows young children gain from individual attention to a degree not possible if staff work with large numbers of children.

Children deserve a good start and most experts agree with Professor Nutbrown that training should last a minimum of 2 years and be at level 3 (equivalent to A-level standard). However, this means costs rise. It also reduces access to childcare because some potential recruits to the workforce won’t commit time to training before they start to earn.

Professor Nutbrown’s call for all childcare trainees to have level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) English and mathematics before they start training will further reduce the number of recruits. It is argued that a way to overcome this is to allow professional early years workers to take responsibility for larger groups. But I would urge caution here; the evidence shows young children gain from individual attention to a degree not possible if staff work with large numbers of children.

The Nutbrown’s report raises another issue. Young people who underachieve are often guided into childcare through poor careers advice at school. They need entry qualifications at levels 1 and 2 which allow them to work under supervision. If the entry grade is raised to level 3, this would remove the stepping stones these young people need. Equally, many adults who failed at school rediscover a love of learning through a level 1 childcare qualification. They gain self confidence and often progress to university. The entry level start therefore not only strengthens childcare provision but provides a springboard to other careers.

It is vital that this quality is not sacrificed in the interest of saving money and providing accessibility – or it will be a time bomb ticking for the next generation.

Richard Dorrance is chief executive of the Council for Awards in Care, Health and Education (CACHE)

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