Sights Set Too Low

Nothing short of a revolution is taking place in New Zealand’s
child care services. From this month all managers of early years
facilities, including those leading childminder networks, are
required to be qualified as a teacher. This is just the first stage
of an ambitious 10-year plan to dramatically raise qualification
levels among early years workers. By 2012, New Zealand expects to
have a 100 per cent teacher-trained child care workforce.

This bold commitment means that New Zealand is likely to leapfrog
other English-speaking nations in terms of the standard of its
child care. Australia and the US have yet to embark on this kind of
reform. Out in front are the Scandinavian countries, which have
long since required workers to hold degree-level qualifications.
Other European countries, such as Spain, have also recently sought
to improve the standard of their child care workforce. But few have
set out their reforms in as clear terms as New Zealand, now
attracting worldwide attention for its approach to the early

The UK’s own 10-year child care strategy was published by the
government last month. It, too, placed considerable emphasis on the
importance of provision being of high quality. The reason is
simple. Child development research has begun to receive some
long-awaited attention from those in government. It is said that
children’s minister Margaret Hodge has the infamous Feinstein graph
on her office wall – data compiled by Leon Feinstein demonstrating
differences in the development of advantaged and disadvantaged
children from as early as 22 months.

Another piece of research – the Effective Provision of Pre-school
Education study – has been particularly influential. It has shown
that settings that have well qualified staff, with a good
understanding of child development, can benefit children. This and
other research has helped to persuade the government that the
quality of child care is primarily determined by those who deliver
services rather than by regulation and inspection. While other
aspects of provision are important, nothing is more crucial than
the training, experience and overall approach of staff.

So it was particularly welcome to see a commitment in the 10- year
strategy to ensuring that the UK’s child care is “among the best
quality in the world” and that “working with pre-school children
should have the same status as working with those of school
The UK’s child care workforce includes many professional and
dedicated people. But by international standards it remains
relatively poorly qualified, badly paid and inadequately supported.
Only one in three child care workers is trained to NVQ level 3 or
above. Wages for child care workers are not competitive with those
of supermarket workers, let alone teachers. Unsurprisingly, there
are many vacancies and high levels of staff turnover. Workforce
reform is a clear priority for the future.

However, despite helpful signals in the 10-year child care
strategy, it lacked bold New Zealand-style pledges. The UK
government’s commitment to workforce reform has so far been more
nuanced. Some elements of reform are spelt out: group settings will
be graduate-led, more child care workers will be expected to be
trained to degree level, and there will be a single qualifications
framework. Childminder qualification levels will be expected to

But we are left to ponder whether reform will amount to a
transformation of the workforce or incremental change. The 10-year
strategy floats two models of an early years professional: an early
years teacher who could build on existing teacher qualifications,
and a pedagogue, a profession that would deliver education in the
broadest sense by drawing on the traditions of social psychology as
well as pedagogic theory. As yet, there is no commitment to
re-shape the entire workforce around one or other of these
The ambiguity surrounding the government’s vision for the future of
the child care workforce means there is still some way to go to
secure commitment to the kind of step change that many of those
working in the sector believe will be necessary. Such is the scale
of the task ahead – to dramatically improve the skill base, improve
pay and conditions, increase the diversity of the workforce and
attract more people into the profession – that nothing short of an
entire rethink is needed.

The danger is that, faced with such a daunting task, and in the
context of other pressures on the children’s workforce, the
government will be satisfied with improving what we’ve got, rather
than facing up to what will really be necessary to ensure that the
quality of Britain’s child care can rival the best in the world.

Lisa Harker is chair of the Daycare Trust

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