Nursery staff-to-child qualification tweaks spark criticism

The government hopes to boost nursery capacity by letting managers count experienced level 2 qualified staff as level 3

The government hopes to boost nursery capacity by letting managers count experienced level 2 qualified staff as level 3

27 Apr 2024, 12:51

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A relaxing of rules governing how qualified early years staff supervise children in a bid to tackle a nursery recruitment crisis has been described as “shortcuts and cost saving”.

In a consultation published on Monday, the government confirmed it will introduce a new “experience-based route” for early years practitioners.

Staff-to-child ratio requirements vary depending on the age of children, but under current rules at least one staff member should hold an approved level-3 qualification for each age group.

Under the government’s new policy, early years managers will be able to count some of their level-2 qualified staff as level 3 without them having the “full and relevant qualifications” that are usually required.

Low pay and limited progression

The consultation is one of several government initiatives to address the crisis in early years staff recruitment as expanded “free childcare” hours are rolled out this year.

Recruitment issues in the early years sector are widely understood to be caused by low pay and limited career progression opportunities.

However, in a report also published this week, the National Audit Office said it was “unclear” whether the new experienced-based route, a recruitment campaign, or increased funding rates for level-3 training would have the “intended impact”.

In a foreword to the consultation, minister for children, families and wellbeing David Johnston said that while high-quality qualifications were “integral” to supporting the early years sector, the experience-based solution received “strong approval” from providers when they were consulted last year.

Three-quarters of respondents agreed with the proposal, with some expressing “frustration” that some “highly competent and experienced” staff members could not be counted towards statutory staffing ratios without a formal qualification.

To address concerns about potential “negative” impacts this could have on the quality of early years education, the government is now consulting on exactly how it should set the eligibility criteria for experienced staff.

Plan ‘won’t encourage staff into sector’

Helen Donohoe, chief executive at the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), said a stable workforce can only be maintained with an established body of professionals and “the appropriate pay”.

She added: “[The experienced-based route] should never be used as leverage for shortcuts and cost saving, and so for it to work a comprehensive workforce strategy must be in place.”

The Early Years Alliance’s director of quality improvement Michael Freeston called the experienced-based route “yet another” attempt to quickly increase educator numbers and said it would do “little” to encourage people into the sector.

James Hempsall, managing director of childcare consultancy and training provider Coram Hempsall’s, said: “This initiative must be matched with investment to provide continuous professional development and access to it – which is entirely possible.”

Staffing numbers down, despite popularity of apprenticeship

The number of early years staff is down three per cent from its peak of 434,000 in 2019.

A survey by the Early Education and Childcare Coalition last year suggested that fewer than one in five nursery managers felt they could provide the government’s extended free childcare offer because of the recruitment crisis.

It also suggested that more than half of nursery staff were considering leaving the sector this year.

Ofsted has also raised concerns about the difficulty early years providers have in recruiting and retaining staff.

However, the level-3 early years apprenticeship was the most popular standard in England in 2022/23, with 14,850 starts. 

A DfE spokesperson said: “This government is delivering the largest ever expansion of childcare in England’s history, and we have the highest quality provision in the world, with 96% of early years settings rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding as of August 2023 – up from 74% in 2012.

“The experience-based route will provide another avenue for people to join the sector and is in response to demand from the sector for greater recognition of practical experience alongside qualifications. It is not a replacement for formal qualifications.”

A spokesperson for IfATE said: “The ‘typical duration to gateway’ is agreed by our trailblazer groups of employers as part of the apprenticeship development process.

“It indicates the recommended length of time needed for an apprentice to become competent at the job they are training for.

“IfATE does not dictate the model of delivery of apprenticeships.

“Providers can offer the apprenticeship with a duration that suits the employer’s need while ensuring sufficient time is available to become competent in the occupation. 

“There are a number of factors that could influence how long it takes an apprentice to complete.

“In addition to learning the knowledge, skills and behaviours set out in the standard, they include mandatory qualification requirements and whether a learner has prior learning before starting an apprenticeship which can allow for shorter completion time.”

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