The Nutbrown review of early education and childcare qualifications

The Nutbrown review of early education and childcare qualifications

We take a look at and highlight the key points of Professor Cathy Nutbrown’s interim report on her review of early education and childcare qualifications and career pathways.

Scandal of pre-school carers who can’t read or write

This headline appeared on the front page of The Times on Saturday 24th March over a piece by their Chief Political Correspondent on the publication of Professor Cathy Nutbrown’s interim report on her review of early education and childcare qualifications and career pathways.

Other media reports on the same day echoed The Times:

Nursery workers so illiterate they struggle to read stories aloud (Daily Telegraph)

Childminders barely Literate says DOE – Sarah Teather MP, Minister for Children (BBC News)

Sky News and the Guardian, reproducing a Press Association report, were more temperate but still focused on the same issue:

Concerns Over Nursery Staff Literacy Skills (Sky News)

Nursery staff skill concerns raised in Nutbrown review (Guardian)

Laying aside the fact that Sarah Teather didn’t use the words attributed to her by the BBC–what was it in the Nutbrown report that triggered these lurid headlines? What does the report actually say about the literacy of childminders and nursery workers in England? Cathy Nutbrown certainly expressed ‘substantial concern’ on this and other issues but her interim report sets her concerns in the context of a soberly conducted review of the way the people who deliver childcare and early education in this country are recruited, gain qualifications and develop their careers. These broader findings about the shortcomings (and merits) of the system were barely mentioned in the media reports – and what was said by the more measured contributors was virtually drowned out by the ‘illiteracy’ charge.

Remember, this is an interim report. What we have at this stage is an account of the present state of affairs and of possible ways of remedying its shortcomings based on responses to a call for evidence, what was said at consultation events around the country and the results of an online survey with Netmums of more than 1,000 parents. Criticism is directed at the qualifications system rather than at the personnel who rely on it to equip them with the knowledge and skills to do their job and to help them develop rewarding careers. Introducing her report Professor Nutbrown said that it “sets out the shared concerns among the workforce about their qualifications system, but I also hope it reflects the pride they take in their work and the hugely positive impacts they are having on the lives of our young children.’ Sometime this summer, she will be presenting her final recommendations as to how a more effective qualifications structure can be put in place so as to ensure that people are better prepared for working in the early years sector and have more clearly defined career pathways to follow. In one word, the review is about the professionalisation of the early years workforce. How can this be achieved? What obstacles stand in the way?

The obstacles holding back the drive towards professionalism which are identified by Nutbrown include:

  • The diversity of the 400,000-strong early years work force – it includes homeworkers , owners, managers, employees, and volunteers working in a range of settings (homes, nurseries, children’s centres, nursery schools and reception classes of primary schools) spread across the voluntary, private and public sectors and providing care and early education within the EYFS framework;
  • Low entry levels – this is what triggered the Times and Telegraph headlines. As the Times put it: “Nutbrown found that ‘competence in English and maths’ was often not required to complete qualifications. Pupils with the ‘poorest academic records’ were being steered on to childcare courses as an alternative to hairdressing. She wrote that ‘the hair or care ‘ stereotype still exists for many considering a course in the early years, yet many other sectors have raised their expectations in relation to enrolment”;
  • Considerable variation in the qualification level of the paid staff in childcare and early learning settings – 8% have no qualifications, 50% have a level 3 qualification (equivalent to A-level) and 14% have a qualification equivalent to an Honours degree or above. (The qualification level across the board has been improving over time, but it is not possible to establish how many of the qualifications achieved are directly relevant to early years work);
  • Failure to recruit from across the whole population – in particular, men are hugely under-represented forming only 1-2% of the workforce across all types of early years settings, while black and minority ethnic groups are under-represented in managerial and leadership positions.
  • A chaotic qualifications system – this is Nutbrown’s main concern. There is an open market in early years qualifications. Many of the qualifications on offer are not known to or trusted by employers and are of little or no use to the people who achieve them;
  • The limited content/insufficient length/poor quality of some of the available courses –they do not deliver the core knowledge, skills and experience required for early years work, some tutors are themselves under-qualified and some settings do not provide students with the support and supervision they need while on placements;
  • The lack of clearly marked and progressive career pathways for early years workers;
  • Low status, poor remuneration of early years work – this both a reflection of the other shortcomings and their root cause.

There are a number of factors that work against fragmentation of early years care and education, notably the EYFS and Ofsted’s inspection system. Following the Tickell review a new Early Years Framework will be in operation from this coming September and Ofsted has already put in place a revised inspection framework for the sector. Complementing these initiatives, Nutbrown will be coming forward this summer with recommendations as to how early years qualifications might be upgraded and made fitter for purpose and early years careers made more attractive and rewarding. In this interim report she has identified the issues she will be addressing:

  • Are the present one year courses too short? Should more time be found for students to learn more about child development and learning theories? Do present qualifications try to cover too wide an age range (0-19)? Shouldn’t the content of early years qualifications focus on babies and young children? Can ways be found to ensure that learners are able to gain experience from a variety of settings before they qualify. How can the quality of tuition and placement supervision be guaranteed;
  • Should entry requirements be raised? The Tickell review of the EYFS recommends that level 3 should be the minimum qualification standard for the whole workforce. This could lead to improvements in practice and raise the status of the sector, but ways would have to be found to protect the position of those already in post without a level 3 qualification, particularly members of black and minority ethnic groups;
  • Should students be required to demonstrate competence in English and mathematics in order to complete an early years qualification at any level?
  • Given that the EYFS is the beginning of the education system, should ways be found to recruit more qualified teachers into the early years workforce? Should we go further – despite reservations about introducing formal learning into the early years – and create an Early Years Initial Teacher Education (ITE) route, leading to Qualified Teacher Status, which covers ages 0-7.
  • Finally, should we seek to go the whole way down the professionalization route and, following the example of teachers and social workers (and of the early years sector in Scotland), require all those working with babies and young children to be licensed?

Nutbrown’s interim report:

Newspaper, radio and TV reports cited at the beginning of this entry

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