Analysis – Developing the early years workforce: what does the evidence tell us?

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Developing early years workforce

By: Rachel An and Sara Bonetti

Originally published by the Education Policy Institute.

There is mounting evidence that high quality early years provision can have lasting positive effects, not only on the children who participate but on society overall. According to a recent study, children who attended high quality childcare with skilled and caring staff started school, on average, three months ahead in literacy and language, were 20 per cent more likely to do better on their GCSEs and earned more as adults than those from low-quality settings.[1]

However, the evidence provides only mixed answers to the question “What really counts as high quality?”, when it comes to the early years workforce. Some studies found a clear link between the quality of provision and the presence among the staff of a person with a degree-level qualification,[2] particularly in deprived areas.[3] On the other hand, a more recent study showed that the presence of a graduate had a very minor impact on children’s outcomes.[4]

Despite the difficulty in identifying exactly which specific qualifications and characteristics make for highly-qualified staff, both researchers and practitioners tend to agree that a highly qualified workforce is crucial for high-quality provision. And while further research is needed in order to explain this relationship, we consider it important in the meantime to address the inherent problems of low pay, low qualifications and a poorly valued workforce. Government policies over the past few years have sought to increase access to early years programs for different groups of children, with little acknowledgement of the value of the workforce, as the following suggests:

  • New qualifications for early years staff and regulations for childminders were introduced in 2014, deepening the already existing “qualifications divide”, where a majority of childcare workers with low level of training and qualifications are set apart from the small minority of qualified teachers in nursery and reception classes in terms of perceptions, pay and career progression.[5]
  • Free early years entitlements have grown from variable local arrangements to a national universal offer over the past twenty years (the most recent development being a 30 hour entitlement for working families), but subsidies given to early years providers are lower than market value (even under the new proposed prices), placing financial stress on providers and stunting staff wages and benefits – while also driving up childcare costs overall. [6]
  • Funding for the early years is at an all-time high – in 2017/18, 7 billion, or 0.48 per cent of our GDP will be spent on childcare[7] – but early years teachers’ salaries have experienced a decrease in real-terms. While pre-primary teacher salaries increased on average by 6 per cent in OECD countries between 2005 and 2014, in the UK, the change was a negative 15 per cent (the only other country faring worse was Greece). [8]

This demonstrates that well-intended provisions for the early years have often been implemented without sufficient regard for its workers. And so, despite recognising the importance of highly-qualified teachers for children, and ultimately to society, the status and working conditions of early years educators have deteriorated as their nominal wages remain stagnant, workload stays high, benefits continue to be subpar to teachers at other levels and even new increased funding proposals towards their programs are seen as insufficient.

It is no wonder that teacher recruitment and retention issues are widespread in the early years sector. Teaching, particularly to young children, is no longer an attractive profession, making it harder for providers to secure highly qualified staff. In 2014, the UK had the fourth highest percentage of teachers under 30 in pre-primary education [9] and staff turnover has risen in recent years to 18 per cent in 2016. [10] In addition, the government has missed recruitment targets the past few years and there has been a decline in the total number of level 3 childcare certificates (the minimum qualification to be an Early Years Educator) awarded. [11]

But while early years teacher shortages are a widespread problem across England and many other countries, this is not a universal issue. Here, we will look into the case of Finland, where teachers at all levels of education are highly regarded and teaching is one of the most valued and attractive professions. We recognise the vast cultural, historical and societal differences between Finland and England. Thus, we will end with a look across the pond at New York City’s recent successes in early years recruitment despite their historic teacher crises and similar approach to early years education.

In Finland, early years teaching is highly respected and all teachers are treated as professionals. Their difference in the treatment of early years practitioners starts with competitive teacher training programs and extends into the practice of high autonomy. Teaching institutions remain highly selective, even for the early years and applicants are admitted based on various measures including essays, entry tests, interviews and a high motivation to teach. There are no alternative routes into teaching.[12] All staff in early childhood education and care (ECEC) centres must have at least an upper secondary qualification, with one in three staff members needing a higher education degree. Even family child minders have some degree of specialised education, while all pre-primary teachers have a bachelor’s or a master’s degree.[13]

In addition to being highly professional, the Finnish early years workforce is treated as such by their governing bodies, education system and society. Therefore, they enjoy high workplace satisfaction and autonomy. For instance, the government provides no national performance guidelines for children, instead fostering a strong relationship between teachers and parents with a focus on a child’s development and overall well-being. All assessments are between the teacher and the child with feedback to parents. Early years staff also enjoy high job satisfaction and security. Ninety per cent of trained teachers remain in the profession throughout their whole career despite the very moderate pay.[14]

In stark contrast, our government’s efforts to raise qualifications and professionalise the early years workforce have led to unwanted consequences, such as reducing existing workforce and potential for new entrant, thus exacerbating the teacher recruitment shortage.[15] The succession of different requirements and qualifications over the past decade – from the 2006 introduction of the Early Years Professional Status to the post-2014 requirement for A-C grades in GCSE maths and English for a level 3 Early Years Educator (later broadened to allow functional skills as an alternative) – has fostered mistrust and confusion in the sector.[16]

And while we agree with the general aims of these efforts – to raise the standards of our early years provisions and qualifications of providers – the difficulties encountered in professionalising our early years workforce show not only a lack of correspondence between the early years sector and government, but also a key difference in the position of early years workers in England. The high regard for the teaching profession encountered in Finland does not translate in England, the hair-or-care stereotype steers high-achieving, ambitious students away from early years teaching and devalues early years work. The large impact that adding passing GCSE grades as a requirement to be an Early Years Educator had on teacher recruitment attests to this problem. And even compared to Initial Teacher Training programs for Qualified Teaching Status in primary and secondary schools, the Early Years Initial Teacher Training attracts fewer students with first class degrees and more from the lower second class.[17]

As these failed efforts to revamp the profession show, we cannot change the early years sector overnight. But large-scale improvements in a short amount of time are possible, as New York City has recently demonstrated. Within two years of rolling out their universal pre-kindergarten program for 4-year-olds in the fall of 2014, the city was successful in nearly quadrupling the number of available free full-day pre-kindergarten seats, from 20,000 to 53,000 in the first year and then to 73,000 in the second. To make this possible, the city had to recruit two thousand extra early years lead teachers and hundreds more teacher’s aides and assistants.[18]

There is much we can take away from how NYC managed to find and recruit such a high number of qualified early years teachers over the course of just several months. First, high investment. Unlike Finland, where high cultural valuation of teachers provides a surplus of those willing to teach, New York had to attract teachers – both from students who might not have considered teaching and from already qualified teachers outside their system – to meet their needs. This was made possible in large part by the acknowledgment and subsequent willingness of the city to spend an unprecedented amount on the early years. The city successfully battled for $340 million per year of funding from the state of New York,[19] a significant amount to ensure competitive teacher pay, and dedicated $6.7 million for a large-scale partnership with the early childhood professional development institute at the City University of New York to maintain a supply of qualified teachers.[20]

For the 2016-17 school year, starting salaries of lead preschool teachers ranged from $44K to $56K, and while disparities in pay do exist, those working at community-based centres will still earn a comparable amount to centres in New York districts[21] – made possible through signing and hiring bonuses, part of a $16.9 million pledge to close the gap.[22] This is significantly higher than the median American pre-school teacher salary ($28,570 in 2015)[23] and almost double England’s starting salary for pre-primary teachers (18K to 22K in pounds), which is also notably much lower for those working in private, voluntary or independent centres despite recent measures to close this pay disparity.[24]

Second, clear routes to teacher training and certification. Unlike in England, where there are various qualifications and certifications for early years teaching, all NYC lead teachers are required to have a bachelor’s degree and a New York State teaching certificate for early childhood (NYSEC). But NYC has also set up a ‘Study Plan Lead Teacher’ position for those who do not hold the NYSEC, and this program has been key in drawing high quality teachers from across the country and even from abroad. All they require from candidates to start teaching is a bachelor’s degree in early childhood, completed childhood education coursework or significant experience, along with a commitment to obtaining a NYSEC within three years.[25]

And while this is all highly promising, we acknowledge that it is still too early to judge the system’s long term successes due to its newness. Additionally, comparing cities to countries comes with a lot of qualifiers. While NYC had the option of attracting talent from across the state, the country and even from abroad, drawing from a large outside geographic area is not as much of an option, or recommended, for countries where high-quality teacher recruitment will need to work more within the system. Further, NYC had the advantage of finding funding from beyond their tax base – being highly dependent on state and federal governments for the program to work – while in England, finding large amounts of additional funding for the early years will be a challenge.

But, since it is clear from past policies that our government does want to improve the quality of our early years provisions, there is much to be learned from abroad. Our efforts to professionalise the workforce have previously not been successful as something more than just higher qualifications is needed to make hiring better educated recruits feasible. In Finland, their high entry requirements, intensive initial training and autonomy are enabled by a high cultural regard for teachers at all levels of education. In New York City, rapid mass recruitment of new, qualified teachers was facilitated by competitive pay and clear routes to develop and certify lower-qualified but experienced and motivated staff.

Likewise, our staffing situation will not improve unless we couple our efforts for higher entry requirements with other policies that can raise the value of early years teaching while supporting the sector through the changes. The epidemic of low teacher recruitment and high dropout that our early years face is only symptomatic of a much larger problem: the low status of and insufficient regard for our early years practitioners.

If we truly do believe in investing in our nation’s future – and there’s no reason not to, the evidence on the importance of early years is only growing – we must not only seek to raise the qualifications of early years teachers, but we must also shift our current outlook and treatment towards them. It’s time to show in action that our early years educators do matter.

This article was published on the Education Policy Institute website. You can find the original article here.