What is the role of government? Is it to support business or cause undue anxiety and difficulty by instigating policies that are neither helpful or workable? This is precisely the position facing the early years sector at the moment; a sector run by 12,443 businesses, that has a revenue of £4 billion as well as employing 188,433 workers to support families who need to work (Child Day-Care Centres Market Research Report, 2016).
How then can they justify a policy change in 2014 which has put the whole sector in jeopardy? Why? Because we cannot recruit enough staff to meet the needs of their other policies and the growing needs of parents returning to work. Why? Because of the requirement that all childcare students and apprentices wanting to complete their Level 3 Diploma in Childcare must have a GCSE Level A to C in English and Maths.
The sector warned the Government that there were insufficient numbers of students available to complete a childcare qualification with both those grades. How can we fix in a short time what 11 years of schooling have failed to achieve? We suggested a practical solution which was allowing us to use the Functional Skills as an alternative entry requirement. These qualifications are Government approved and the acceptable entry requirement for all other apprenticeships.
Sadly, this was refused and the consequence is a catastrophic decline in available qualified staff. There has been a 72% drop in students enrolling in Level 3 courses and a 96% drop in apprentices. The sector has now reached crisis point. The pipeline for new staff is dry and those who replace staff leaving through natural attrition are few. We certainly cannot meet our growth targets for the 15 hours or the 2 year old offer (80,000 places short) let alone plans to increase to 30 hours.
There is no benefit to having this barrier to entry. In fact, it will lead to a reduction in quality as nurseries are forced to take more unqualified staff as they can be employed without the A to C GCSEs. However, to maintain quality we must have a balance of qualified staff. Right now, our committed staff are tired, worried and at breaking point. Depending on agency staff is unsafe, expensive and not conducive to quality for children. We need to be able train and recruit staff who want to work with children and who can be supported, developed and retained to provide the quality service that every child deserves.
The irony is that the solution is simple. Change the wording of the regulations to include the option for Functional Skills as the entry requirements and do it before the 1st September so new students can be enrolled on their courses. But who can intervene on our behalf? We have neither a strategy nor a Minister for Childcare.
Today nurseries are part of the infrastructure of a modern society. We merit the support of a government and politicians who, instead of spending time on their ideological battleground, should be supporting those people trying to run businesses which enable ordinary working families to work.
June O Sullivan
London Early Years Foundation (LEYF)
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