Lack of investment leading to loss of ‘generations of much-needed talent’ from early years workforce

Low pay and a lack of career benefits are leading to “generations of much-needed talent” being lost from staff working to educate and support society’s youngest children, according to a new report.

In a review of the early years workforce and policy in England, the Sutton Trust suggested that under-investment in the sector risked widening social inequality.

The education charity’s new report urged the Government to improve the training, pay and employment conditions of early years employees so their work could encourage social mobility, particularly for the most disadvantaged children.

Minister for children Vicky Ford said the Government is putting “an unprecedented amount of support into the sector for the autumn term”.

It follows a separate report from the Sutton Trust last month which warned a third of nurseries in the most deprived areas of England may be forced to close permanently due to coronavirus-related financial difficulties.

The charity’s latest research examined progress in the sector, which includes schools, nurseries and other settings, since a 2012 review led by Professor Cathy Nutbrown found flaws in the early education and childcare qualifications system.

The Sutton Trust said only five of the 19 recommendations put forward by the Nutbrown review were taken up the Government.

Its new report highlighted that “a professionalised, well qualified and adequately rewarded early years workforce is crucial to securing the high quality of provision required for social and educational progress, especially for the less advantaged or those with additional needs”.

But it concluded that policies introduced since 2012 to improve “a fragmented, inadequately qualified, low status, poorly paid and diminishing workforce” had not met the vision of the Nutbrown review.

It found that the creation of the new qualifications of Early Years Educator (EYE) and Early Years Teacher (EYT) “has not led to a boost in recruitment of higher qualified staff in the sector”.

The report, which was written before the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, said recruitment to EYT courses has “dropped dramatically” over the last five years, “significantly” limiting progress towards having highly qualified leaders in all settings.

Meanwhile, there are insufficient funds to recruit and retain higher qualified staff in many early years settings, the report said.

It also found: “There is a high level of turnover in the early years workforce, which is losing more experienced and qualified staff, mainly due to low salaries and lack of career benefits.

“This has led to an increase in staff with lower qualifications in many settings.”

The report added: “Workforce quality is key to addressing gaps both in terms of attainment and emotional wellbeing as early as possible, improving a child’s long-term life chances and social mobility.”

It argued Government and public perceptions of the early years sector needed to change from it being viewed as “providing primarily a childcare function” to “a highly professionalised and vital foundational element of our educational system”.

The Sutton Trust outlined five priority areas for “urgent action”, including establishing a “vision” for the early years workforce to restate its importance as well as the removal of barriers to accessing entry level qualifications.

The charity also said Continuing Professional Development (CPD) should be required for all staff throughout their careers, and funding incentives should be provided to encourage the employment of graduate leaders.

Disparities on pay and employment conditions between the local authority maintained and private sectors must be addressed, the Sutton Trust argued.

Its report is a contribution to the work of The Early Years Workforce Commission (EYWC), which brings together membership bodies, nursery groups, education charities, awarding organisations and independent research groups.

Prof Nutbrown welcomed the report, adding: “A highly qualified, early years workforce, requires vital investment in the future, we cannot afford the consequences of failing yet again to fund high quality provision for young children and appropriate qualifications and renumeration for those who work with them.

“The solutions are clear. What is needed now is political will to properly resource the future and to show due respect to young children and those who work with them.”

Ms Ford said £3.6 billion was going into early education through childcare places this year.

She added: “Now we also fund programmes in professional development to support staff and develop key skills and of course I am looking in detail through the spending review of how we can further have that long-term support for key skills as well.

“But we are putting an unprecedented amount of support into the early years sector because we know it is so vital.”

Tulip Siddiq, Labour’s shadow minister for children and early years, said: “The Government has driven experienced nursery staff and childminders out of the sector by failing to tackle low pay and a lack of career progression.

“Early years education can transform the life chances of children but this incompetent Government has failed to give the sector the support it needs.”

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