For some time now, I have felt that the Early Years sector has gotten ‘stuck into the groove’ of negative rhetoric.
Much of what we hear, and a lot of what we seem to say about and within the sector is, unfortunately, negative. For example, “staff are poorly paid…staff are not well qualified….the sector isn’t valued by the government (nursery education funding and Covid pandemic)...early childhood care is too expensive...” I could go on.
Whilst I do believe that we should raise issues widely, where there are problems to be solved and discussions to be held, I also argue that we should be mindful of the messages that we’re broadcasting, and consider how to turn this around to empower the sector as much as we can.
I truly believe that if we don’t challenge the negativity with some real positive messages that remind everyone (including ourselves) of the great work we do, we will get more of what we don’t want – demotivated staff, who may only be here because they don’t know what else to do.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the way we currently talk about Early Years, why it might be hindering more than helping matters, and how to start looking at the glass as a little more ‘half-full’.
When we talk about the status of the sector, we tend to concentrate on how poorly staff are being paid. While this may be true, the way we talk about is essentially telling potential new recruits that the work they do will be undervalued by their employer, and that they won’t be adequately paid.
Instead of focusing on the fact that working with our youngest children is one of the most rewarding jobs a person can do, we tend to place the negatives to the forefront. The issues we face with pay are, of course, very real and very frustrating. However, this sometimes steals the spotlight from the fantastic work that Early Years involves.
We forget to tell potential new starters, or young people considering their future career options, that making a difference to the life of a child and sharing their joyful exploration every day is an amazing experience. We forget to tell them that’s an incredibly fulfilling way to earn a living to help our youngest children grow and develop. And that’s exactly what I mean by ‘negative rhetoric’.
We’ve heard it before - that there’s a large amount of ‘poorly qualified’ staff in the Early Years. But that just isn’t the case. When we say that they’re ‘poorly qualified,’ we’re comparing them with schoolteachers. We even go so far as to compare Early Years Teacher (EYT) Status with Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), and complain that they are ‘not equitable’.
Is this helpful? I would argue that this really isn’t the best way to look at it. Both of these qualifications have been developed over time to meet the specific needs of the roles they fulfil. Unless a person wants to move into a completely different role, comparing the two doesn’t make much sense.
In my experience, where individuals have moved from EYT to QTS, it was mainly in search of better pay and conditions. However, I find that individuals soon discover that the ‘grass isn’t greener’ on the other side of the fence. The roles are not the same, and any differentiator in salary is offset by variances in role and contractual expectations.
And this is a slippery slope. We’re unconsciously preparing early years practitioners, who study to graduate and post-graduate level, to exit the sector when they are ‘well-qualified’. We almost suggest that they should defect to a post in a school as soon as they have reached post-graduate level and have a wealth of experience obtained through their work-based studies.
What we need to speak more about is the number of QTS practitioners who leave teaching in a school to seek roles in day-care. I’ve heard these staff say they feel more connected with the children, and are more able to teach in line with the philosophy and principles set out in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS). That’s the kind of good news we should be sharing as widely as we can.
Both before and during the Covid pandemic, we have been bombarded with messaging from sector leaders about how little early childhood practitioners are valued by society. We are told that this is reflected by Government policies that restrict the level of Early Education and Vulnerable Children funding, so that basic costs are not covered.
The language used around school closures, vaccinations for ‘key worker groups’ and the definitions of ‘essential services’ has led to a number of our own early years practitioners leaving the sector as they re-evaluated how they felt about their own safety during the pandemic. We talk about ‘how expensive’ day care is, particularly when compared with other countries.
While all these issues and worries are valid, looking at other countries’ approaches is like comparing apples with pears. By trying to place ourselves on a ranking with other countries, we fail to consider how funding for early years provision works in other cultures, and don’t mention that in the UK, most families pay more per hour to have their house cleaned than the hourly rate of day-care.
If we multiply all of these messages across settings throughout the UK, we should seriously consider if it has a big impact on the current recruitment and qualifications crisis in the sector as a whole. What we should remind ourselves is that the early years curriculum here in the UK is one of the best in the world. Many countries, particularly those in the United Arab Emirates and China, look to the EYFS as an example of high standards for teaching, learning and care of young children, placing children’s play at the forefront of early childhood experiences, and we should celebrate this whenever we can.
In light of all this, my message would be this: let’s get positive! As early childhood leaders, managers and thinkers, part of our job is to support staff retention and promote recruitment into the sector. Whilst we can’t and shouldn’t ignore the messaging and discussions going on around us at national and international level, we should also be mindful to balance this with our own positive experiences.
If we don’t change the rhetoric, the people we really want to retain and recruit will feel undervalued, demotivated and disillusioned. Young people making decisions about what and where to study for the next stage of their life, and who are planning their career options, will dismiss a profession in early years.
So it’s up to us. Let’s change the rhetoric. And who knows, we might be surprised at what happens!
Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.