Level 3 early years educator: numeracy and literacy requirements consultation – SCHOOLS NorthEast response

Last month, the Government launched a consultation on whether early years educators need GCSEs in Maths and English.

Since 1 September 2014, staff who hold the early years educator qualification must also have achieved grade C or above in GCSE English and Maths, but some employers in the sector have reported that this has made retention and recruitment of staff more difficult.

SCHOOLS NorthEast asked for your input on the matter, to ensure that our consultation response reflects the views and experiences of North East early years providers. Based on your replies, we have submitted the response below.

The importance of early years education

As a network of schools, we recognise the vital importance of high quality early years provision. The Review on Poverty and Life Chances reported in 2010 that they had found “overwhelming evidence that children’s life chances are most heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life”. In other words, early years matter.

The North East has the highest proportion of Good or Outstanding early years provision (91%) of any English region. This is perhaps part of the explanation for the North East’s impressive recent performance in the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile. In 2013, our region lagged significantly behind all other regions on the proportion of pupils achieving a good level of development at EYFSP, but this gap has closed over the past four years and the 2016 figures saw the North East leapfrog four other regions.

The proportion of pupils achieving this level increased by 23.2 percentage points in the period; by far the largest increase of all regions. This is testament to the quality of early years and primary school provision in our area, and SCHOOLS NorthEast believes that more should be done to ensure that a greater number of parents in our region use the fantastic provision available to them.

However, despite the high quality of early years provision available in our region, too many children are starting primary school who are not ready to learn. Head teachers from across the North East have reported children arriving at school still wearing nappies, unable to count to ten, recite the alphabet, feed themselves or speak in sentences. This suggests to us that many parents are not taking up the high quality early years provision available in the North East. We are particularly concerned that, according to Ofsted’s 2015 early years report, nationally 42% of eligible 2-year-olds from lower-income backgrounds are not taking up their free childcare entitlement, as schools in our region see this as an effective way of closing the disadvantage gap early on.

Numeracy and literacy in the North East

Numeracy and literacy are the foundations on which all other skills are built and, as such, we believe that it is essential that basic numeracy and literacy skills are developed and nurtured during a child’s early years. This is particularly important in our region, where there are worrying levels of adult numeracy and literacy.

The 2011 Skills for Life Survey by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills found that the North East found that around 1 in 3 adults in the North East have numeracy levels of a 7-9 year-old or lower and that around 1 in 5 adults in the North East have the literacy levels of a 9-11 year-old or lower. This means that our region has the second lowest levels of adult literacy and joint lowest levels of adult numeracy when compared to other English regions. When only adults with English as a first language are taken into account, the North East is bottom of the table in both. These low numeracy and literacy levels mean that there are a significant number of adults in our region who lack the basic skills needed to access good jobs and further training. This has a knock-on effect not just for our schools, but also the regional economy.

With this in mind, we are in strong agreement with Professor Nutbrown when she writes, in her review of early education and childcare qualifications, “As a country we need to raise our expectations of what it means to work with young children, and attract the best people into the workforce. Literacy and mathematical abilities are essential for anyone working with our young children”. The Government’s decision to introduce the GCSE requirement for level 3 staff was, therefore, a step in the right direction – albeit it one with unforeseen negative consequences.

Impact of the GCSE requirement

It is clear that the introduction of the GCSE requirement has caused recruitment problems in many early years settings. Some training providers have reported a significant drop in the number of applications for level 3 courses, whilst some early years providers have had difficulties recruiting staff because candidates do not have GCSEs in English and maths. There are also concerns that level 2 staff are leaving the sector because they now feel that progression to level 3 is out of their reach. On top of this, the imminent introduction of 30 hours of free childcare will put further pressure on the sector.

As a result of all of these challenges, some providers are concerned about their future viability and this is very concerning. Given the importance of good quality early years provision – and the vast majority of provision is either Good or Outstanding – it is essential that providers are not forced to close in large numbers.

The case for GCSEs

The principle that level 3 Early Year Educator staff should also have achieved a C or above in English and maths is one that SCHOOLS NorthEast supports:

  • It is good for the children: Research, including the report by Mathers et al (2011) commissioned by the DfE, has found that a higher qualified early years workforce has a positive impact on the quality of provision. The 2015 DfE research brief on “Effective pre-school, primary and secondary education project (EPPSE 3-16+)” showed that receiving high quality early years provision had a long-term positive influence on both educational attainment into secondary school, but also on social-behavioural development.
  • It is good for the sector: Given the vital importance of early years education, it is essential that the profession is held in the esteem that it deserves. The Nutbrown Review noted that it was important to “put an end to the view that early years is an option for those who are ‘not bright enough’ to do other jobs, or a ‘last resort’ for those who have left school unqualified”. We agree with this and think that a GCSE requirement raises the status of the profession, which is important in attracting talent that may not otherwise have chosen a career in the early years sector.
  • It is good for practitioners: Achieving a C or above in English and maths GCSEs opens up many new and exciting options both within and outside the early years sector. It also has the potential to raise aspirations and expectations.

School leaders in the region that we consulted were particularly keen that early years staff had good English language skills; “educators need to be fluent speakers, readers and writers of good English”. As one school leader noted “we can’t have practitioners modelling learning to our most vulnerable children, when they themselves haven’t got a basic understanding”. Heads were keen to point out that early years staff act as role models for children and have to communicate important information to parents both orally and in writing.

Whilst GCSEs are not the only way of demonstrating a good standard of literacy and numeracy they are, as one head put it, “a demonstration that there is a deeper understanding over time”. There is concern that other level 2 qualifications are insufficiently vigorous and focus too much on simply passing the test, rather than developing sustainable skills.

School leaders also felt that there was a difference between childcare and early years education. If a qualification is to be called Early Years Educator, then candidates should be expected to have a good understanding of the subject and how to engage young children in learning. As Professor Nutbrown noted in her Review; “An early years practitioner should be sufficiently confident in their own literacy and numeracy to bring a story to life imaginatively and help children explore through play concepts such as number, size, weight and shape – and they must be able to do this in a way that engages and enthuses young children to enjoy learning and to discover more”.

Alternative qualifications

As has already been noted, there is currently a shortage of aspiring early years practitioners with the requisite GCSE qualifications. This is despite the fact that the majority of young people finish key stage 4 with a C or above in their English and maths GCSEs – at the end of the last academic year, 61.2% of pupils in the North East achieved this. However, as the Social Mobility Commission noted in their 2016 Annual Report: “just 35 per cent of white British girls who are eligible for FSM – the socioeconomic group that forms the majority of the childcare workforce at present – achieved this level last year”.

This disconnect between workforce and qualifications presents a dilemma, with three potential solutions: upskill the group that has traditionally made up the childcare workforce, downskill the level 3 position, or entice new groups into the sector. Of these three options, the first is the most difficult (but most desirable) and the second is certainly the easiest (but also the least desirable).

The consequences of the introduction of the GCSE requirement demonstrate the difficulties of trying to upskill a workforce without providing the necessary support and structures. If the Government is serious about getting the GCSE requirement right, it needs to provide support and funding to aspiring level 3 staff who do not have the appropriate qualifications. Otherwise, these individuals are forced to pursue these qualifications on their own, often with great difficulty and at great personal expense.

More generally, the early years sector is severely underfunded and will be placed under even greater financial strain when free provision is extended from 15 to 30 hours. If the Government expects the early years workforce to be more qualified, it must provide more funding to the sector to pay the higher wages that more highly qualified staff would expect. As it is, there are other choices for those with few qualifications that often pay better than the early years sector, such as retail or hospitality.

Whilst we believe that the GCSE requirement should be the Government’s long-term objective – and that the Government should arrive at a strategy to make this work – we are also cognisant of the very real threat that this requirement currently represents to many early years providers. As such, it may make sense to revise these requirements temporarily to address the short-term shortage in qualified staff. We think that the Government could consider the following options:

  • Have two level 3 positions – Early Years Educator which has the GCSE requirement and level 3 Early Years Practitioner which does not. There could then be clear incentives – whether in terms of wage scales or child to adult ratios – for Practitioners to gain GCSEs to achieve Educator status. This would allow providers to choose which level 3 staff would suit their setting and parents to make decisions on providers based on this.
  • Revert to level 2 functional skills in English and maths as a temporary measure. If this course was chosen then the Government who have to lay out a very clear strategy for how and when the switch to GCSEs would take place. There should also be support, incentives and a clear expectation for staff with functional skills qualifications to upgrade to GCSEs.
  • If a bespoke qualification is developed, it should be on top of existing level 2 qualifications and should be evidence-based, with a strong pedagogical focus. Any bespoke qualification would have to be rigorous, particularly in ensuring that candidates have a good standard of spelling, punctuation and grammar.
  • Given that the literacy demands of being an Early Years Educator are far higher than the numeracy demands, the Government could consider retaining the GCSE requirement for English, whilst temporarily relaxing the maths requirement to allow level 2 functional skills. This is problematic, in that it suggests that the literacy and numeracy are not of equal importance. It does, however, recognise the realities of the role.

To reiterate, we agree with the principle that level 3 Early Years Educators should also have GCSEs at C or above in English and maths, but recognise that this is not currently practical and puts some providers at risk of closure. Given the importance of early years provision to children’s future life chances, we would support a compromise solution in the short-term to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of early years staff to meet the growing need for places. In the meantime, we would encourage the Government to formulate a long-term strategy to meet the GCSE requirement goal.

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