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
    years.

    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
    age”.
    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
    improve.

    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
    models.
    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.
    CC

    Lisa Harker is chair of the Daycare Trust

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