A Highly Qualified Workforce? Issues in Professional Development for the Early Years Sector


Following discussion at recent CREC Board of Trustees meetings, the Trustees would like to share with you this paper which highlights the current challenges and workforce issues impacting on the EY sector.

At a time when all of the political parties will be looking to finalise their manifestos for the upcoming General Election on 12th December 2019, we offer up this synthesis of the challenges that we hope any future government would seek to address if it truly believes in developing a world-leading Early Years service built on an appropriately qualified, valued, supported, and remunerated workforce.

We welcome views, comments and questions regarding this piece and are open to republishing the following as a White Paper for further use and distribution in the New Year , with the intention that it be used as a resource for influencing policy in the next parliament.

A Highly Qualified Workforce? Issues in Professional Development for the Early Years Sector

Commitment, passion and drive underpin the excellent practice often encountered in early years settings, nursery classes and nursery schools.

As a board, we constantly marvel at what is achieved across the early years sector. The time and effort given without recompense or any expectation of recognition, in the pursuit of better outcomes for children and their families is unparalleled in any other profession.

Whilst this professional generosity should be acknowledged and applauded, it’s neither a realistic ideology nor sustainable framework upon which to base the development of the sector. Without wishing to be negative about the colossal achievements made, it is important to shine a light on the barriers faced and reflect on upon the implications for the future.


Acknowledging the outcomes of research regarding the relationship between the quality of practice and qualification base within the early years sector (Sylva et al., 2004; Mathers et al., 2007), the past decade has seen initiatives aimed at improving outcomes and closing the attainment gap through improving the quality of education delivered by a more highly trained early years workforce.

To achieve the aims of a ten-year strategy for childcare published in 2004, Choice for parents, the best start for children, the 2006 Transformation Fund provided £250 million to advance workforce knowledge and skills. This was superseded by the Graduate Leader Fund in 2007, providing an additional £305 million in funding between April 2008 and March 2011.

This investment facilitated the workforce to achieve qualifications beyond the level 3 requirement to lead practice as laid down in the statutory Early Years Foundation Stage, (DfE, 2018). Two qualifications emerged, Early Years Professional Status, (CWDC, 2008) which was replaced with a graduate pathway and set of standards relating to Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS) (National College for Teaching and Leadership (NCTL), 2013). The Government's aspiration was for every Private and Voluntary Sector provision to employ a professionally qualified graduate to lead pedagogy by 2015.

In 2018, the Education Policy Institute (EPI, 2018) report identified that around 50% of three and four-year-olds were educated in settings with a graduate (QTS/EYPS/EYT), falling some way short of the 2015 ambition. This figure reduces to 44% in respect of for funded two-year-olds (EPI, 2018: 24-26). This is of concern as two-year-old funding is directed at more vulnerable children.

Alongside this direction of travel, the Nutbrown report ‘Foundations for Quality’ published in 2012 concluded that too; qualifications did not equip the workforce with the necessary knowledge and skills to provide high-quality early education and care. The review considered how to promote career progression into leadership roles with the final report making 19 key recommendations. One recommendation advised that by September 2022 all staff working within the EYFS framework and counting in the adult:child ratios should be qualified to a minimum of Level 3. Nutbrown concluded the level 2 qualification was “not sufficient to equip a practitioner for work in the early years”. (Nutbrown, 2012: p6).

The recommendations arising from the Nutbrown report have not been brought to fruition, whilst Government has revised the Early Years Practitioner (level 2) qualifications criteria in July 2018, the Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework outlines (p 21:3.23) that in group settings, the manager must hold at least a full and relevant level 3 qualification and at least half of all other staff must hold at least a full and relevant level 2 qualification.

The EPI also communicates a reduction in level 3 qualifications with the proportion of level 3 qualified staff in early years settings falling from 83% in 2015 to 75% in 2016 (NDNA Survey data cited in EPI, 2018:3).

This combined with 21% of the workforce becoming eligible for retirement in the next 10-15 years describes a potential difficulty in sustaining the current proportion of graduates working within the sector, given the proportion of childcare workers studying towards a higher qualification has fallen from 22.7% in 2008 to 17.2% in 2013 and to 14.9% in 2018. (EPI, 2018:3-4)

If workforce development is known to be crucial in improving outcomes, what are the barriers that negate a highly trained workforce, and can they be surmounted?


Parity and Respect:

There are two types of specialist roles for teachers within the early years:

- Qualified Teacher Status (QTS)
- Early Years Teacher (EYT - covering birth-5 years)

Both roles have the same entry requirements, however, only those with QTS can currently teach in maintained schools as ‘teachers’. The EYT role does not have the same status, conditions of service, salary or career opportunities as QTS. It is seen as a limited career option because those with the EYT qualification cannot teach beyond the reception year in a maintained school.

The messages on the ground communicate a sense of a two-tiered approach to teaching, with the subliminal message that early years education is not as important as the other key stages because the specific ‘early years’ teaching qualification is not rewarded in the same way.

In addition, those with QTS often feel threatened because they incorrectly assume that the EYT qualification is not as rigorous as QTS and that they may be ‘replaced’ in early years classes in schools with someone cheaper.

There is some element of truth in the notion of being replaced. As budgetary restrictions and increasing costs continue to impact upon schools, leadership teams are increasingly considering options to save money. This includes undertaking consultation to change the status of a maintained nursery class to that which is a ‘pre-school’ managed by the Schools Governing Body under its community facilities powers. This removes the requirement for a ‘Qualified Teacher’ and the new provision is delivered on the 1:8 ratio model for three and founr-year-olds and 1:4 for any two-year-olds present. The provision can be led by a practitioner with a level 3 qualification and demands a much lower salary.

Other options have included amalgamating nursery and reception classes to create a ‘Foundation Stage Unit’ and employing and utilising trainee teachers working alongside a QTS lead.

The Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Guidance (DfE, 2018) makes qualification and ratio requirements clear: 

- Nursery classes and reception classes in maintained schools must be taught by a teacher with qualified teacher status (QTS). Maintained reception classes must be taught by a teacher with QTS and the class size cannot exceed 30 pupils according to Infant Class Size regulations

- Where maintained schools mix reception children with younger children, then additional rules apply. There must be an additional adult with a full and relevant level 3 qualification supporting the QTS teacher.

- Additionally, the staffing ratio must be no more than 1:13 per adult. For a QTS teacher and an additional adult with the relevant qualifications, the class size cannot be greater than 26. If the class size is above this, then a third adult is required.

- Whilst class sizes above 26 are possible with 3 adults, the class cannot have 39 children (what you might expect with a 1:13 ratio). The class can only have a maximum of 30 children in total, because the infant class size rule also applies.

- If academies or free schools mix reception children with younger children, although the rule about QTS does not apply, the rules above, about suitable qualifications still apply and so do the staffing ratios of 1:13, as well as the overall infant class size limit of 30 children.

Graduates report that it is not easy to find work in schools because headteachers require the flexibility to place staff across more than one key stage. Figures suggesting a gradual decline in numbers bear this out.

- 2013-14, 2,327 candidates started funded places on an EYT programme.
- 2017-18, only 595 new entrants to EYITT (535 on postgraduate routes; 60 on undergraduate routes), (DfE, 2017a)

According to the data collected, we are training fewer specialist EYTs. This is of concern because a range of research including Mathers et al., 2011 & Save the Children, 2016 indicates that direct contact with specially trained graduates (EYTs, EYPS, QTS) is associated with better quality provision and better outcomes for young children.

There is a general sense of a lack of respect. Government policy over recent years has increased access to early years education for different groups of children, with little consideration of the workforce or the turnover of staff.

Recognition of the benefits of a highly-qualified workforce to children and society remains rhetorical when the status and remuneration for practitioners have deteriorated in real terms. Workload stays high, whilst salary and benefits remain below teachers at other levels.


Government funding for the delivery of early education is insufficient to sustain standards, affecting morale as leaders struggle to do ‘more’ with ‘less’.

Already dubbed the Cinderella option, alongside the often-quoted stereotype of ‘hair or care’, early years education is not an attractive vocation. The proportion of level 3 qualified staff in early years settings fell from 83% in 2015 to 75% in 2016 (NDNA Survey data, cited in EPI 2018:3). We are in danger of having a less well-qualified workforce than we have seen in previous years.

Cost of Qualification:

The cost is prohibitive for many, especially those we might want to attract. These are the practitioners already in place, often mature students with children and financial commitments and already struggling on low wages. They have the necessary work-based experience and the soft skills crucial for this age range, (warmth, empathy, resilience, good communication skills).

The withdrawal of Local Authority workforce development grants and lack of central government investment has had a direct impact. As a result, there are practitioners who have the capability to achieve QTS and EYT but can’t surmount the barrier of cost and do not want to incur debt to do so.

Time / Duration of Training:

For those who do not follow the A-levels—University—Employment route, the time and commitment involved create a huge barrier.

It takes three years (part-time) to achieve a foundation degree (total ~£7,800), one year and £9,000 for honours equivalence, followed by a further year and a further £9,000 to attain a PGCE, plus the need to obtain GCSE grades in English, Math’s and science. Over 5 years, this pathway costs in the region of £26,000 and is unobtainable for practitioners earning minimum wage.

Whilst the need for academic rigor is undeniable, a system that awarded credits for evidence of sustained high-quality practice might reduce the traditional length to obtain the qualification and the costs.

Funding to Early Years Organisations:

The ability to appoint a graduate in early years provision is becoming more challenging.

Early Years settings and nursery classes in a West Midlands ‘Shire’ Authority are paid just £3.96 per child per hour. To place this in context a ‘Big Mac’ meal is £4.69. Therefore, it's not surprising to discover the 2016 DfE Childcare and Early Years Providers Survey cites that just 29% of group-based staff had a level 6 qualification, 39% of maintained nursery staff, and 8% of childminders.

Deployment of Specialists:

If the achievement gap between disadvantaged children and their peers is to reduce, there is a need to implement an approach which increases the number of specialist graduates employed in disadvantaged areas.

The 2014 research led by Sandra Mathers for the Nuffield Foundation, investigated the quality of provision provided for disadvantaged three and four-year-olds. The outcomes of this research indicated that where early years settings employed specially trained graduates, quality is higher and the quality gap between settings in disadvantaged and more affluent areas is narrower.

Affordability of CPD:

Maintained Nursery Schools (MNS) are at the forefront of early years system leadership with 32 operating as Teaching Schools and delivering a range of CPD models. They report anecdotally that sales and uptake of curriculum training are low, whilst statutory training (child protection, PREVENT, first aid) provide staple income.

The early years workforce is a ‘compliant’ workforce due to statutory requirements. It is also increasingly a workforce where there is limited focus on training for improving pedagogy or leadership. Providers routinely advise they cannot afford both the cost of the course and the cost of supply cover, which from an agency can be £120 a day for a level 3 equivalent.

MNS Teaching Schools report that many practitioners are young and that in smaller organisations the critical mass of staff with the skills and motivation to engage in reflection and research can be low. Funding for staffing barely covers ratios and therefore the capacity of leaders to coach and mentor colleagues is restricted. Succession planning is not well developed and staff turnover within the sector remains high.

Exploiting What Works:

With limited funding, organisations such as the Education Endowment Foundation are challenging school leaders to consider the evidence base for training programmes offered to teachers.

The traditional notion of attending a one-day course and finding the time and capacity to cascade this to others is changing. Wider approaches such as coaching, mentoring, collaborative work, peer reviews and insightful evaluation are necessary to develop every practitioner in situ.

This brings us full circle to the ability to train and employ more highly qualified staff who can lead this approach.


The removal of the Local Authority statutory duty to oversee quality improvement and the direct provision of professional development has led to the end of subsidised training for the sector and limits the support available for quality improvement work.

Ofsted is the sole arbiter of quality; this means that within a 48-month inspection cycle, children can pass through an early years provision with declining standards with no external validation of quality. The PVI sector has not yet followed the school-based ‘system leadership’ model and internal approaches to reflection and perpetual development are not overly sophisticated.

Quality Assurance:

There are a huge number of online training courses available for practitioners to access with no clearly identified, nationally recognised quality mark.

A simple google search for SEN training leads to a ‘Groupon’ offer for a level 2,3 & 4 course which can be completed in 15 hours for £39. The content may well be valid, but a level 4 diploma is not the same as achieving a level 4 qualification and the plethora of choices and online materials detracts from initiatives designed to ensure consistent and coherent workforce development, such as the Early Years Special Educational Needs Coordinator (EY SENCO) award in private, voluntary and independent settings that has been developed in consultation with the DfE by sector specialists.

Promotion / Career Pathways:

Opportunities for career progress are important for staff retention across the sector, but opportunities for this are limited, especially in smaller settings.

There is a train of thought communicated by some practitioners who do not see the value of increasing their professional knowledge because this does not provide a direct route to promotion within the field.

General Confusion

There has been a range of different requirements and qualifications over the past decade – from the 2006 introduction of the Early Years Professional Status to the post-2014 requirement for A-C grades in GCSE Maths and English for a level 3 Early Years Educator (later broadened to allow functional skills as an alternative).

This has fostered mistrust and confusion in the sector, a view presented by TACTYC in the 2017 report, ‘Early Years Teacher and Early Years Educator: A scoping study of the impact, experiences and associated issues of recent early years qualifications and training in England’.

In Summary

The sector needs an adequately funded, coherent plan for CPD with pathways for career/qualification progression across all levels, overseen and supported by local authorities who have a closer view of provision and needs in their areas, but in partnership with voluntary and sector organisations and the highest quality settings (maintained nursery schools).

  • - There are now 32 Maintained Nursery Teaching schools that are well placed to lead this work. However, they are caught in the same funding trap, their long-term viability is unknown and large DfE projects related to early years are frequently commissioned elsewhere.
  • - The type and quality of CPD should be considered further to make the best use of the available resources. It requires a blend of coaching, on-site support, evidence-based CPD / Intervention with built-in evaluation, alongside a key focus on the development of leaders within their own organisations. The need for a kitemark or wider communication in respect of online training may also be an area for reflection.
  • - Teacher Training needs to offer parity to the early years sector leading to coherence in early years teacher qualifications, for example, one qualification of QTS Early Years Teacher for birth-to-7-years. This should be combined with equal pay and conditions. None of this is possible without a dramatic change in approach to the funding of early years education.
  • - Government policy may need to choose a system where less adequately funded ‘higher quality’ hours provide a good start to education, as opposed to the current policy confusion which champions both quality and access as a means for families to access employment.

- Recognition and respect are crucial to recruiting and retaining specialist early years graduates and consideration should be given to more flexible and cost-effective routes to QTS which take account of prior experience.

- Finally, accurate figures should be compiled on the numbers entering early years specialism Initial Teacher Training (ITT) placements each year, alongside clear estimates of the numbers of early years teachers needed to allow direct access to a graduate for all funded two, three, and four-year-olds.

The 2017 DfE Early Years Workforce Development Strategy does identify many of the issues raised in this paper and outlines some specific actions to be taken. Two years on, however, there is limited progress and the question early years supporters and specialists must ask is: What can be done to provide a further catalyst for progress?



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