Quantity over Quality

Over the past two decades there has been an unprecedented focus on Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC). The 1998 National Childcare Strategy set out the then Labour government’s intention to increase ECEC provision across the sector through a number of initiatives. This continued during the Coalition term of government. However, during this time, policy altered to focus more on effective use of reduced funding. For example moving towards targeted rather than universal services, removing ring- fencing for varied early years grants and increasing the role of the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) sector to compete for tenders (Sylva et al., 2012). One of the first high-profile announcements of the Conservative Government elected in 2015 was the intention to double funded provision for 3–4-year-olds with working parents in England from 2017. There are widespread concerns regarding this policy about the ability of settings to provide additional provision, when the proposed funding rate is seen as unviable. The government responded to these concerns with a review of childcare costs (DfE, 2015a). One of the key recommendations was for settings to increase their use of flexible staffing patterns to meet the ‘peaks and troughs’ of demand as a way to reduce staffing costs. However, this raises issues around the quality and status of practitioners and ultimately the sector.

There are also concerns about the impact of other past policies on the quality of ECEC. For example, there has been an increase in the number of providers employing practitioners with a recognized professional qualification at degree level or above (e.g. Early Childhood Studies (ECS); Early Years Professional Status (EYPS); Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS)). However, whilst the number of practitioners with these qualifications has increased from around 6,000 in 2014 to 8,000 in 2015, the number of registered providers with practitioners qualified to this level fell back to 41% in 2015 compared to 45% in 2014 and 42% in 2012 (DfE, 2015b). This suggests that fewer smaller settings are employing graduates and/or more are securing employment in maintained settings, such as schools. This highlights the lack of clear development pathways and the need to enhance the professional standing of the sector, a point emphasized by the Nutbrown review (2012).

It is well documented that the higher the level of practitioner qualifications, the better the quality of the setting and outcomes for children (Siraj-Blatchford et al., 2008; Nutbrown, 2012). To achieve the best outcomes for children, there needs to be more coherence in the government’s overall objectives for ECEC. As an example, over 90% of 2-year- olds are in private, voluntary and independent provision whilst the majority of staff with higher qualifications are in the maintained sector (DfE, 2015b; House of Lords, 2015). The DfE (2015a) review of childcare costs acknowledges the fragmented nature of the ECEC system. The targeted nature of funding for the additional 15 hours of provision in England will add further fragmentation. Recent policies have led to a significant expansion in the provision of ECEC and this latest policy will require further substantial change to the sector if the Government offer is achieved. However, this needs to be seen in the context of quality and the most significant variable here are those who deliver services – namely practitioners. So far, changes over the past two decades have not led to sustainable development for practitioners, a recognition of their skills and experience and the implementation of a systematic career framework.

To achieve the ambitious plans outlined back in 1998, future policy will require more than simply putting graduates into the workplace – particularly given the withdrawal of funds to specifically support this. This aim was underpinned by target 26, set by the European Commission Childcare Network in 1995, which set the ambitious aim of a minimum of 60% of practitioners working with children have completed at least three years of post-18 training (for example, degree level) and that the remainder of staff without this should have access to it either at training institutions or through continuous professional development. Even so, increased training levels alone are not enough. To value practitioners with increased levels of training, there also needs to be a rethink of salary levels, clearer progression routes and a career framework that makes this possible (HM Treasury et al., 2004; Nutbrown, 2012), and there is a dearth of policy addressing this.

The focus on the early years sector is clearly not as evident in the political arena as it was. This, along with suggestions, such as using more casual staff and fragmented funding and organization, all suggest that the government see ECEC as an employment rather than an economic issue. And the establishment of a government task force to drive this, headed by an employment minister, Priti Patel, confirms this. Why is this problematic? It sends a message about how ECEC is seen. Is it primarily there to support the employment of parents? Or, is it about providing young children with the best start in life to achieve their potential and contribute to the economic health and social fabric of the nation throughout their lifetime? Unfortunately, it suggests the former. In contrast, ECEC policy in Scotland is clearly positioned as economic.

When analysing the impact of the latest policy, to double funded provision for eligible 3-4 year olds to 30 hours, it is necessary to see this in the broader context of the sector, children, parents and practitioners. Yes, it confirms investment in the sector and offers potential to support working parents. In contrast, it does nothing to enhance the quality of ECEC for children or offer clear career development pathways for practitioners. As ultimately the quality of the sector will be determined by the quality of practitioners.

Damien Fitzgerald is Head of Early Childhood in the Department of Education, Childhood and Inclusion






2 responses to “Quantity over Quality”

  1. Rebecca Hodgson Avatar
    Rebecca Hodgson

    Great blog Damien, for a non-expert in early years like me it really maps out the issues clearly and succinctly. Thanks.

    1. teacheruni Avatar

      Thank you Rebecca. That is good to know, as the aim was to be accessible.

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