How a new government’s early years plans will affect further education

Early years and further education are inter-dependent sectors, and failure to value one would be a failure to value both

Early years and further education are inter-dependent sectors, and failure to value one would be a failure to value both

2 Jul 2024, 5:00

With the main parties’ manifestos published, it’s clear the early years is a battleground issue. Whoever wins power, the resulting reform in that sector will not be without consequence for further education.

So far, much of the rhetoric remains on ‘childcare’ as a driver for getting people back to work. However, access to early education also has a profound impact on a child’s development and their life chances.

Getting this right has a direct impact on further education – albeit a delayed one. Likewise, skills policy has a direct bearing on the quality of early years education.

So when pledges come to being delivered, it’s vital that any plans for the early years not only include long-term funding which reflects delivery costs, but that they are underpinned by a robust workforce training and development agenda.

This will have to mean tackling some significant, long-standing issues.

Gaps within the sector’s training and development framework were brought into sharp focus by a 2012 review chaired by Professor Cathy Nutbrown. Her report commended the drive, commitment, knowledge and skills of the workforce but characterised a training landscape which perpetuated low aspiration, low pay and low status.

A clear example of this was the bewildering number of qualifications on offer, which in 2012 had soared to several hundred from just three in the 1980s. Worse still, many of these failed to meet the criteria for inclusion on the Department for Education’s approved list, further exacerbating confusion.

In the decade since, changes have brought some clarity. However, uncertainty over qualification and progression routes remain a barrier. We continue to receive calls from educators who have just been told that their qualification is not accepted by the DfE, meaning that they cannot be counted in adult:child ratios.

Nutbrown also concluded that the quality of training varied significantly, leading employers to question which qualifications would properly equip staff to work effectively with children. This lack of trust discouraged experienced educators from becoming tutors, so the next generation were all too often not taught by subject specialists with recent vocational experience.

Learners often question the rationale behind further qualifications

Considerable progress has been made over the past decade on the supply side thanks to an increased focus on the qualifications framework and improved clarity over the career map for those joining the sector.

In addition, the introduction of apprenticeship standards and the education and early years T Level represent significant progress with potential to drive up recruitment of a younger generation of early educators.

However, for any policy to expand access to quality early years education, it must address the issues outlined in Ofsted’s thematic review. These include improving the initial assessment of learners’ abilities, and difficulties recruiting staff who have the relevant knowledge and experience to match course content.

Perhaps the greatest gap in the sector’s existing early years training and development policy is the lack of an early years route to Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). The fact that this status has not been granted to early years graduates who have studied as hard and at as much expense as their maintained teacher colleagues can only be explained as institutional snobbery.

Denial of QTS epitomises broader challenges facing the sector’s training landscape. Learners often question the rationale behind further qualifications given that the sector’s struggling economic status means completing training rarely translates into a pay rise or promotion.

Encouraging educators to train solely to improve their skills, knowledge and experience only cuts so far. It is this wider context that ultimately leaves committed early years educators feeling undervalued and unappreciated.

So, as the nation heads to the polls in a few weeks, it’s imperative that the next government acknowledges the value and professionalism of the early years workforce, not just by implementing a route to QTS but addressing longstanding issues with regards to access to and quality of courses.

Failure to do so will leave further education caught between pressure to train more educators for the sector on one hand and potential recruits’ understandable reluctance to engage on the other.

And that would be to undervalue further education too.

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