Dr Polly Crowther - Head of Early Years at Oasis Academy Skinner Street
Dr Polly Weddle
Co-Founder of Early Insights, Evidence Lead in Education at East London Research School and EY teacher in Kent
Ambassador cohort
2018 Training Programme

Early Years leaders desperately need support — it’s time we listened

EY leaders receive lower pay, status and professional development funding than any other sector in education - and this is having a direct impact on the children they serve.

There is strong global evidence that quality early years (EY) education is a powerful lever for driving social equality. Similarly, we know that higher levels of qualification and better leadership can improve pupil outcomes. In my work at Early Insights, a global community of leaders in early education, we see the amazing things EY leaders achieve in the most challenging of circumstances. Despite this, a chronically underfunded early education and care sector in the UK allows EY leaders to receive lower pay, lower status and weaker funding for professional and leadership development than any other part of the education sector.

It starts at entry to the profession. I chose to do my early years teacher training with Teach First because the Training Programme addresses these issues. It awards an academic qualification (PGDE) and Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) when other EY-focused programmes awarded Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS); this allows highly trained professionals to be paid less than those with QTS. Teach First’s programme addresses some of the recommendations of the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) and Education Policy Institute’s (EPI) 2020 report into the EY workforce, recommending pay and professionalisation be increased. Indeed, Teach First was the first provider to offer QTS for an EY-focused programme in 2013, making the compelling case that it could not train a separate tier of educators in the most critical phase of education for addressing inequality. Like the industry’s own workforce research conducted by Ceeda, the NatCen/EPI report draws a clear link between entry to the professional and the challenges in retention and progression. Low pay, low status, poor progression and variable leadership have destabilised the workforce for too long.

In low-income communities, leadership posts are harder to fill. This means fewer spaces for children who need them. Before the pandemic, the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at reception widened from 0.1 to 4.5 months. The Sutton Trust argues that this gap is now 11 months when children start school (a quarter of their lives), while ‘The Matthew Effect’ explains that this gap widens for these children throughout their school lives. I also chose the Teach First because I knew it would place me in a school where a high proportion of children faced disadvantage - and because I knew that the early years are the most effective time in their lives to close this gap.

Inconsistent national early years settings and levels of leadership

The quality and quantity of early years has been directly linked to school readiness. In the schools serving disadvantaged communities where I have taught, ‘school readiness’ of children entering Reception is a major challenge. When you work in a classroom with four and five year olds still in nappies, unable to cross their legs or speak in full sentences and with barriers to accessing play, it is easy to feel that somewhere in your children’s lives so far, opportunities for development have been missed. These were experiences I had pre-pandemic, now 67% of schools serving low-income communities say fewer pupils are ‘school ready’ on entering Reception than before the pandemic. The majority of schools are concerned about the impact on teachers, children and operating budgets.

Quality EY leadership can dramatically change school readiness and narrow the attainment gap, but it is too difficult for low-income communities to find and access. Although higher level qualifications support better outcomes in EY, only 15% of the workforce have a Level 6 qualification (QTS, EYTS or EY Professional Status). The sector is underfunded (29% of settings were operating at a loss before COVID) and enormously complex (private, voluntary, state funded, self-employed, school-based, etc).  In communities where settings cannot rely on parents to top up their income, recruiting, developing and retaining effective leaders is an immense challenge. 38% of settings with hard-to-fill vacancies (which are far more common in low-income areas) keep children on waiting lists because of staff shortages.

In schools, leadership deficits in early years also play a critical role. In one school, I filled an EY teaching post that had been occupied by five different teachers over two years before me. In another, I was phase leader after three people had held the role in the preceding year. The experts from whom I learned EY-specific pedagogy were my Teach First support roles. School leaders and, to an even greater extent, Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) leaders, may not have any experience of early years when they absorb it into their remit. A primary school leader without Upper Key Stage 2 experience is pretty much unheard of, while one without EY experience is not uncommon.

Funding is desperately needed

To address the barriers to recruiting and retaining great leaders, pay needs to be commensurate with the responsibility and professional expertise required by the roles. Frankly, EY sector pay is a national embarrassment. 45% childcare workers also claim state benefits and 10% live in poverty and one in five earn below the threshold to pay for National Insurance. Leaders, the highest paid people in the workforce, earn an average of between £11.42 and £13.97 an hour. Since providers generally cannot currently afford to pay more, funding must be made available and an expectation that EY professionals’ pay meet a standard comparable with school and other education leaders.

Progression and professional development also need to be funded. Whilst the recently-announced NPQ for EY is a welcome addition to available training, many in the sector are rightly questioning what funding will be made available for leaders to access it. It is currently only schools who can draw government funding for the NPQ course fees and the cost implications of releasing leaders from their duties for professional development are notoriously burdensome. Recent research shows that proportions of staff with Level 3 qualifications or above are declining. Across the sector, rising costs have not been met with an increase in funding. Leadership development, usually a long-term goal, is harder to prioritise in strapped budgets than the urgent need to meet statutory requirements in provision. EY lacks a national vision for leadership and workforce development, which is needed for funding to be allocated accordingly.

We need major, specific improvements to early years leadership development

EY needs fundamental, systemic changes: fairer funding, higher status and greater awareness. Globally, we know that investment in leadership is an effective way to improve outcomes. In the UK, the case for matching the status and pay of EYTS with QTS is being made from many corners. The DfE recently announced a new EY leadership NPQ, an equivalent to those offered to school leaders. Employing the EEF's new professional development research findings, the NPQ could be powerful. These are beginnings.

However, we cannot just fit EY to the mold of education CPD as a whole; there are critical differences in context and purpose. At Early Insights, myself and Middlesex University’s Dr Mona Sakr have argued that we need major, specific improvements to EY leadership development. On top this, as Dr Julian Grenier has argued, the sector needs evidence-informed professional development.

Organisations like Early Insights’ training partner Kids Planet Day Nurseries, are developing exciting new content for its leaders, including a Level 5 Apprenticeship for Early Years Leadership. However, not everyone can access this support. At Early Insights, we run global professional development for EY leaders, using principles that allow leaders to develop solutions that fit their specific problems (not those designed for someone else).

Call for a culture shift: raising the status of early years leaders

Early years education has an image problem. According to the Royal Foundation’s 2020 report into early childhood, not enough people understand the importance of EY on a child’s further development and learning. Not enough people value the work of parents and educators of young children. Not enough people know that investment in early childhood pays dividends for both education and society.

Early years educators do know, of course. We are the ones feeling the weight of the responsibility, taking home the low pay and being asked “but why early years?!” by family and friends. It’s not the EY sector that needs convincing.  equal status are one part of a solution. But we must equip EY leaders to tell stories in powerful ways and to negotiate for funding that no longer places us bottom in the OECD for early years investment. We need leaders who can see what the world would be like if we invested in young children. In order to do that, we have to get people to care.

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