10/11/2016 08:15 GMT | Updated 11/11/2017 05:12 GMT

A Way Forward: How Government Can Support A High Quality Early Years Workforce

With more and more childcare settings reporting difficulties in recruiting and retaining the practitioners they need to deliver the high provision children and families deserve, it is welcome news that Government is now consulting on its requirement that all qualified staff must have minimum grade C in GCSE Maths and English. But PACEY believes it is time for a more ambitious and strategic approach to developing the early years workforce. An approach that is urgently needed if childcare settings are going to rise to the challenge of delivering 30 hours free early education a week for eligible families.

At PACEY we want all children to experience high quality childcare and early learning. It's something we support our members - almost 30,000 of them - to do throughout their career. It can transform practitioner skills and confidence and is at the heart of why today over 80% of all early years settings are graded good or outstanding by Ofsted. But there is too great a reliance on individual practitioner's wish to do the best for the children they care for; on a setting's commitment to self-improvement and continuous development.

This is simply not sustainable without better recognition; without higher qualifications and CPD leading to better pay and opportunities within the sector and beyond. And there is a pressing need for high quality affordable, flexible CPD to be delivered in innovative new ways that supports practitioners, most of whom are on low wages and with limited time to study.

We know a child's early years have a long-term impact on their health, well-being, and educational attainment. And only high quality care has been found to improve children's cognitive and social development outcomes and narrow the gaps between the most and least disadvantaged children.

Studies from across the globe have found quality to be closely associated with qualifications, and CPD to be essential to maintain high quality and up-to-date early years practice.

The doubling of the free early education from next September for eligible families provides a significant - and long overdue - opportunity to build on the increasing professionalism of the sector, so long as it is funded appropriately.

We have a chance to get the long-term sustainability and development of the workforce right and it's urgent we do - with more and more settings reporting challenges in recruiting and retaining qualified staff. Key to this are clear career pathways that don't include barriers to entry or progression and lead to better pay and opportunities.

The DfE's consultation is welcome - the current GCSE requirements are stopping new entrants joining the profession, and preventing qualified and experienced Level 2 practitioners from progressing. We need functional skills to be recognised as equivalent, just as they are in many other professions. But it's not all that needs resolving.

Early Years Teachers need the same status as qualified teacher; the thousands of talented non-graduate practitioners in early years need support to grow their skills, to become graduates or to develop as specialist; or simply to remain up to date.

This is all possible, so long as the serious issues around the funding rates many providers receive for delivering free early education are addressed. If not, I'm concerned about the impact on childcare supply, cost and quality in the coming years. There needs to be a concrete and achievable plan that recognise the key barriers that prevent many people from doing this:

• A lack of time, funding and support to undertake CPD

• An absence of clear pathways from entry to graduate level

• Persistent low pay regardless of qualification level.

• Society's continued lack of understanding and recognition of the critical role practitioners playing in children' early development.

There are a few things Government could do right now to support a high quality workforce:

1. Retain a quality supplement in the Early Years National Funding Formula to help settings invest in training and qualifications for their staff.

2. Recognise functional skills qualifications in English and Maths as equivalent to GCSE for Early years educators.

3. Enable Early Years Teachers to gain Qualified Teacher Status, so they have access to the same pay and conditions

4. Make it easier for practitioners to access information about qualifications and training modules, as well as loans and bursaries.

Longer term we need a task force to map out the early years profession, and its entry and progression routes. It should also consider how to better promote the profession to secondary schools, careers services and the wider public.

The free entitlement should be used to reward settings with higher qualifications or grades, so quality improvement is incentivised. Government should require a minimum level of CPD per year for registered settings, as is the case for other professions such as social work and nursing (and for childcare in countries such as Finland and Sweden).

Over time functional skills qualifications should be strengthened and the regulation of training providers made more robust. Finally we need more support for qualifications and training, in particular more support for practitioners to train to graduate level.

There are huge economic gains from investment in the early years and its workforce. We know it also has a critical role to play in improving social mobility. So I encourage Government to take a more strategic approach to workforce development that helps us attract talented new people and to motivate existing practitioners to progress in the early years profession.