Today, the charity Save the Children published a report entitled “Untapped Potential” about children’s outcomes in early years settings, and the qualification levels of early years staff, focusing particularly on private, voluntary and independent (PVI) settings. While I wouldn’t disagree with some of the recommendations that are made at the end of the report, I found myself getting increasingly irritated as I read it. Not only is correlation repeatedly confused with causation, but the disparity in funding between PVI and school based settings is not mentioned once. Perhaps the most annoying aspect of the report was the inaccuracies that could have been spotted by anyone working in early years. These inaccuracies seemed designed to pit PVI settings against school ones, rather than to convey an accurate picture of the sector as a whole. (Although in a bizarre twist, the conclusions reached actually seemed to suggest that it is parents refusing to send their children to a childcare setting at all that was the real cause of inequity, rather than a lack of staff qualifications.)
“one in three children started school in 2014/15 without having reached the expected level of development … It’s unfair that children’s futures are being jeopardised before they even start school. “
This statement about the number of children reaching the “expected level of development” is based on the results of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile (EYFSP). Unfortunately for Save the Children, the EYFSP is not done at the start of school, it’s done at the end of the Foundation Stage. At this point the vast majority of children will have been in a Reception class in a school for a full year, with a fully qualified teacher, who will usually have qualified via the PGCE route (thus attaining QTS and being paid via the Qualified Teacher Payscale) rather than being taught by an Early Years Teacher. The report appears to acknowledge this later on, when it says “almost all school-based early years settings are led by teachers with QTS”. This is given as the reason why the report focuses on PVI settings (although I’m not sure why it decides also to wipe childminders out of the sector, by not mentioning home based settings once).
The confusion between Reception classes and early years settings happens again in Section One of the report, where it is stated that “Figure 1 shows that in 2014/15 one in three children (34%) started school without reaching a good level of early development.” Again, these children are not starting school at this point, they are moving into Key Stage One. While attendance in Reception is not statutory until the term after your child turns five, it’s fair to say that most readers would assume that when a report says “started school” they mean “started school” as opposed to “reached the age for statutory full time education”. The next page reinforces the error, adding a touch of moralising to the mix, and (as is the fashion these days) suggesting that it is the fault of educators that social mobility doesn’t happen. “Allowing so many of our children to start their school careers behind in crucial skills makes us all complicit in the persistence of poor social mobility in our country.” Leaving aside the question of whether or not the EYFSP is a good measure of “crucial skills”, the fact that the children being measured here are up to 25% apart in age is ignored.
The next part of the report moves onto safer, if rather dated, territory, with the mention of the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education (EPPE) report. (A piece of research that has been going on for so long that it is now called EPPSE to indicate that it includes secondary education.) Yes, of course good quality early years provision can make a fantastic difference to children. Yes, of course we’d all love to have well trained staff. But the problem is not PVI settings, nor schools, the problem is funding. If our setting were to employ a teacher with QTS, on the Qualified Teacher Payscale, we would need to pay out almost our entire turnover to a single member of staff. Luckily for us, our wonderful and highly qualified Early Years Professional (EYP) leader is willing to work for much less. Awkwardly, the report then starts quoting estimated tax revenue based on attending childcare, using figures that seem to suggest parents are being mean to the Chancellor if they keep their children at home when they are young. “Attending childcare leads to a benefit over a lifetime of around £11,000 to the exchequer”. Perhaps this is an attempt to show the government that childcare is worth the investment, but using such figures feels oddly misplaced to me.
At this point, things get really complicated, because the report tries to unpick the differences in outcomes between children attending childcare in deprived areas, and those attending childcare in areas of more affluence. The findings quoted make for interesting reading. The implication seems to be that parents hold you back, childcare brings you on, and a qualified member of staff brings you on a little bit quicker. While I’m no expert at interpreting data, a difference of 4% seems small to me. I was quite surprised to find so much was being made of it, while none was being made of the much larger gap between attending a setting and no childcare at all: “compared with a child who attends a setting with a highly qualified member of staff at age two and age three, a child who attends no childcare is 36% less likely to reach a good level of development, and a child who attends a nursery without a highly qualified member of staff is 4% less likely to reach a good level of development”. I’m not clear what the report is suggesting here, as it makes only passing reference to children’s centres and supporting parents in other ways. Next the report identifies some aspects of good quality childcare that don’t really seem to me to be dependent on a high level of staff qualifications – we’re all clear, I think, that songs, play, games and so on are beneficial for small children’s learning.
In the second section we are told that “most settings don’t have an early years teacher”. (I’d imagine this might be because it’s a fairly new qualification, so there are hardly any EYTs, and the qualification doesn’t come with QTS, so why not just do a PGCE?) We are told that “areas that are struggling most with nursery teacher provision in the private, voluntary and independent sector are much more likely to be characterised by low levels of employment, education and income than other areas” and that London does best of all. Let’s face it, in an affluent area parents can fundraise to support their local childcare setting, and may well have more time and experience to offer as trustees of a voluntary run setting. In an affluent area, where babies are more likely to be in childcare because of both parents working, then settings can ‘top up’ their funding via fees. Finally, a bit late in the day, overall rates of funding are mentioned: “On average, local authorities in the top 20% received £4,558 per child, for the free childcare entitlement compared with local authorities in the bottom 20% who received £4,192 per child.” Yes, the reason why it’s so hard to employ a qualified teacher is because we don’t get given enough money to do so*.
The third section of the report moves onto much safer territory, because it talks about the problems caused by changes to how the workforce is trained. We are told that “the current workforce itself is shrinking”. I find this hardly surprising, in a career where, unless you lead a setting, you are unlikely to earn more than £10 an hour, no matter how many years you have worked. I liked the challenges presented in this section:
- Improve entrance routes into the workforce
- Provide better support for CPD
- Develop clear progression routes for the workforce
However, unless funding changes, I’m not sure that any of these challenges can possibly be met, and especially not with the increased costs that have been and will be caused by auto enrol pensions, the living wage, and the 30 hours offer. Finally, Save the Children lays down the gauntlet to the government to invest more in getting highly qualified staff into deprived areas. I don’t think there’s anyone in the early years sector who would disagree with what they ask for in this part of the report. However, at a time when the government is expanding ‘free’ childcare and pushing settings to deliver this on what is effectively even less funding, I’m not convinced this is ever likely to happen. Worryingly, if we do “ensure EYT status is fully equivalent to QTS” then I don’t know how settings are going to be able to afford to pay their EYTs once the subsidy finishes. Perhaps my main worry about this report, though, is the sense that there is hardly any focus on what is best for children. While trying to find ways to ‘close the gap’ in the sense of social mobility via education, we really must not lose sight of the fact that ‘what is best’ is not necessarily ‘what gets the best test results/the most income for the exchequer’.
To summarise, at the moment, all this “free childcare” is subsidised on the back of a workforce of badly paid, mostly female workers. Oh, and people like me who give up their free time to voluntarily run one of those PVI settings that seem to get such a slating in this report. We don’t have more highly qualified staff in PVI settings because we can’t afford them. And sadly, despite what I’m sure were good intentions, I’m not convinced that this report will do anything to change that.
* The figures quoted in the Report are not based on the funding that settings receive, but on the funding that is given to the Local Authority. This is not all passed on to settings. Our setting receives £2,040 a year for each funded child.