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Blog post Part of special issue: BERA Blog Special Issues: BERA/TACTYC

Early years as a career? Policy, practice and professionalism 2003-2017

Jane Payler Geraldine Davis

In March 2017, the long-awaited Early Years Workforce Strategy for England was published by the DfE. It aims to put in place a number of measures to address some of the difficulties currently facing the early years sector. But does the document really make the most of learning from the past, take account of all available research findings and plan strategically for the future of the workforce? With the Workforce Strategy in mind, we highlight some of the issues raised in our Professionalism: Early years as a career chapter of the BERA-TACTYC Early Childhood Research Review 2003-2017 and ask whether the planned policies can really address the challenges faced.

‘Policy changes since 2003, although substantial, have not always been coherent’

Since 2003 there has been unprecedented change in UK early childhood policy, impacting significantly on practice and the ways in which early childhood practitioners see their roles. Our review explores changes in workforce composition, qualifications and conceptualisations of professionalism, as well as experiences and impacts of these changes on practitioners and children.  The full review is freely available on the BERA and TACTYC websites at Policy changes since 2003, although substantial, have not always been coherent. The drive to improve outcomes for children by upskilling the early childhood workforce is to be applauded.   But the changes have been numerous without time for them to embed before further changes are imposed. The drive for a particular view of professionalisation has not enabled practitioners to voice their aspirations or concerns, or to influence the direction of travel. 

Better qualified practitioners make a positive difference to outcomes for children, especially boys, children from disadvantaged backgrounds and with additional needs. The reality, though, is a reduction in the overall workforce with a large number of unfilled vacancies.  Whilst there has been an increase in the proportion of the workforce qualified to NVQ level 3 or above, and an increase in the number of graduates in the profession, practitioners in the private, voluntary and independent sectors (the largest part of provision) remain less well qualified than those in the maintained sector. This means that the most disadvantaged children are less likely to access settings with the best qualified staff. Despite improvements in qualifications, the workforce remains poorly paid, career progression routes are unclear and graduates within the sector lack parity with teachers in schools. The DfE Workforce Strategy plans a feasibility study in 2018 to increase the graduate workforce in disadvantaged areas and aims to consult on allowing those with Early Years Professional Status and Early Years Teacher Status to lead nursery and reception classes in maintained schools. Yet, such proposed changes further attempt to patch together a system of qualifications and statuses which were inadequately conceptualised from the outset, failing to fully grasp the Nutbrown recommendations, and which will not address the long-standing issues of parity, status, salaries and career progression. 

The need for integrated policies to enable holistic early childhood provision between education, social care and health sectors remains. Considerable challenges for interagency and interprofessional working are evident in the research, although progress was underway. Demands for effective interprofessional practice are on the increase, given the expansion of funded places for ‘disadvantaged’ two years olds. Yet the champions of interagency provision – children’s centres – have been closing, reducing services or combining into limited ‘hubs’ since 2010, meaning that integrated working is more difficult to develop and sustain.

Effective pedagogic and practice leadership influence outcomes for children and such effective leadership is evident in many studies, suggesting that the early childhood profession is capable of developing itself. Effective professional development, through reflective practice, mentoring and supervision, and through the development of collaborative activity both within the workplace and into the wider community, has been evident from many studies.  Qualifications providing opportunities for practitioners to develop across academic and practice roles, and for theory and practice to be shared across higher education and practice settings, are fruitful.  However, policy has imposed qualifications and a quality structure, often performative in nature, which does not always make the most of the attributes of the workforce. Emphasis in research findings on the high levels of skill, sophisticated levels of operation and emotional and attitudinal competence demanded of practitioners belie the policy direction characterised by managerialism, based on rhetoric that suggests a deficient workforce.

Continuing professional development and career pathways need to reflect and support the reality of the complexity of practice. Yet local authorities have had to reduce their role in overseeing and providing CPD as budgets have been cut, leaving settings to find their own way around the expensive and unsystematic range of professional development on offer. The Workforce Strategy acknowledges that ‘Many local authorities have stopped offering free CPD to early years settings. Local authorities have either reduced their offer to cover mandatory training only or have retained a wider range of training for which they apply a charge’, and that employers are concerned about cost and access to good CPD ( The DfE Strategy’s response is to encourage visits to settings and to promise an online portal bringing together CPD and online training modules, with specific training provided through voluntary and community sector grants. Sadly, this does not appear to offer the systematic, sustainable and transformative plan that is needed for professional learning and development.