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De-professionalising or re-professionalising the Early Childhood Workforce in England

Elizabeth Wood

This blog is based on the papers presented in the BERA 2015 Conference Symposium ‘De-professionalising or re-professionalising the Early Childhood Workforce in England?’

Elizabeth Wood, Jo Basford, Joanne Traunter, Jane Payler, Jan Georgeson

The focus on professionalism and professionalisation remains pertinent in Early Childhood and Primary education, as evidenced by the research reported in the symposium, and by other EC SIG members in the 2015 Conference. In spite of the recommendations made in the Nutbrown Review (DfE, 2012) about the links between raising professional status and qualifications and achieving high quality provision for young children, the ‘More Great Childcare’ policy (DfE, 2013) fudged the ‘commitment’ to transforming the status of the profession.

Shaping professionalism through governmentality defines not just the knowledge, skills and competencies that should be acquired, but also the performance of what it means to be an EC teacher

Two significant issues arise from the research of the symposium presenters. The first issue is that professionalism has become equated with the conferment of professional status, as defined in government standards for initial and continuing ‘training’. This equation is most visible in England in the differential standards for Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), and for Early Years Teachers (EYTs). Shaping professionalism through governmentality defines not just the knowledge, skills and competencies that should be acquired, but also the performance of what it means to be an EC teacher. Governmentality has thus imposed significant shifts in what is held in esteem in EC practice, with consequent effects for professional roles and identities.

Basford uses Bourdieu’s conceptual framework of habitus/practice and forms of capital/social fields to trace the positioning of graduates working in the PVI sector. Her research findings indicate that positioning limits the extent to which they are able to mediate their professional habitus concerning assessment practices with their workplace, and wider political discourses (Basford and Bath, 2014). Although the space between initial and continuing professional development creates fertile ground for pedagogical and theoretical challenge, their limited cultural and economic capital delimits such opportunities, conceptualized by Basford as elevated and submissive positions.

Traunter’s research investigates students’ developing conceptualisations of professionalism in the context of the standards for Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS) (NCTL, 2013). She argues that by failing to establish parity between EYTs and teachers with QTS, the Coalition Government has restricted the potential employability and access to equitable pay, conditions and career opportunities for EYTs. Payler highlights similar tensions, specifically attempts to align EYPs and EYTs with ‘teaching’ without the same status as teachers with QTS. These structural differentials influence the potential for boundary crossing in terms of career progression and professional identity.

Moving to the second issue, professionalisation is often equated with professional development and workforce development, typically defined by a range of programmes and activities from initial to continuing stages, with a focus on training rather than education. Professional development is aligned with the standards to be achieved, and then demonstrated in practice. Aligning professionalisation with professional development has thus become an instrumental process with changes in practice only considered worthwhile if they result in improved learning outcomes for children.

Payler examines the professionalization of the ECE workforce in the context of workforce reform in England, using an adapted version (Payler and Locke, 2013) of a conceptual framework for successful workforce reform – The Expansive-Restrictive Continuum (Fuller et al., 2007: 745). Drawing on theories of situated learning, the perspectives of staff without a professional status, but responsible for embedding professionalism into their everyday practice were analysed, alongside their difficulties and aspirations with regard to ‘professionalisation’. A key issue was the availability of opportunities for boundary crossing to extend professional roles and identities. In addition, Payler and Georgeson (2013) identify the competences required for boundary crossing in inter-professional practice.  

Focusing on a critique of travelling policy reform movements, Nuttall et al (2013) argue that restrictive positions not only skate over what we mean by ‘development’ in professional practice but plays into the recent history of what governments and policy makers in Anglophone countries mean by professional development. Early years practitiners then become ‘implementers’, because stepping outside of instrumental scripts can create risks for individuals, for children and for their settings.

There are clear tensions between restrictive/expansive views of professionalism and what professionalisation means in ECE. Current policies are creating differentials between teachers, EYPs and EYTs, and those on vocational routes, by rewarding qualification but ignoring those qualities that are difficult to assess, but that determine sensitive interactions and support for children. With no related professional body, and a persistent government discourse that intimates deficiencies in the quality of the workforce, there is potential for a dichotomy between expansive perceptions of professionalism and restrictive policy frameworks.



Basford, J., & Bath, C. (2014). Playing the assessment game: an English early childhood education perspective. Early Years, An International Research Journal, 34, 2, 119-132.

DfE (2102) Foundations for Quality. The independent review of early education and childcare qualifications Final Report, (The Nutbrown Review) . DFE-00068-2012

DfE (2013) More great childcare: Raising quality and giving parents more choice (January 2013) Department for Education DFE-00002-2013

Payler J. and Georgeson J. (2013) Multiagency working in the early years: confidence, competence and context. Early Years: An International Research Journal, 33, 4, 380-397

Payler, J. K., and Locke, R. (2013) Disrupting communities of practice? How ‘reluctant’practitioners view early years workforce reform in England. European Early Childhood Education Research Journal 21.1, 125-137.

Nuttall, J., Thomas, L. and Wood, E. (2013) Travelling policy reforms: re-configuring the work of early childhood educators in Australia. Professional Development in Education,