Why the Government must change its mind and Save Our Early Years

In 2014, the Government changed the requirements so that all Level 3 Early Years Educators (EYEs) must have at least a C grade in GCSE English and in GCSE maths to count in the staff/child ratios in nurseries. Before this, Functional Skills had been accepted as an equivalent or alternative to GCSEs.

This change in requirement has had a catastrophic impact on the sector – and the crisis is only going to get worse. The policy is obstructing staff career paths and deterring new starters, and there is hard evidence of this. Figures from qualifications body Ofqual show that 12,500 students completed the Level 3 Early Years Educator course between July and September 2015, compared with 18,000 in the same period in the previous year (a fall of 30%) and there was an even bigger fall (32%) between January to March 2015 and the corresponding period this year (the most recent data available). 

The effect of this is felt by nurseries and early years settings who simply cannot recruit – almost half of all early years settings are reporting they cannot find the Level 3 qualified practitioners required to work in them.

And it is felt by parents who are left with reduced childcare choices – just at the time when well-staffed nurseries are needed more than ever to meet the demand caused by the ever-increasing number of working parents and the 30 hours-a-week free childcare promise (both of which are in themselves positive developments).

The 
Save Our Early Years campaign – backed by numerous organisations from the early years sector, including the Pre-school Learning Alliance, the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), the London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), and Apprenticeships 4 England – is leading the calls for the Government to axe the GCSE-only policy, and reinstate Functional Skills.

We agree that good literacy and numeracy are vital for early years practitioners – and Functional Skills qualifications in these subjects provide this, as well as the practical soft skills so necessary to be a high-quality early years practitioner. The current requirements for Early Years Educators is at odds with the Government’s approach to other sectors, where Functional Skills is accorded equivalent status to GCSEs, and is causing the sector such difficulties. We simply want a level playing field. If other sectors have Functional Skills accepted as an equivalent qualification, then there is no reason for the early years sector to be an outlier.

In a recent survey by 
daynurseries.co.uk – a leading reviews website for day nurseries and nursery schools – 93% of people said the Department for Education should reinstate Functional Skills as an alternative qualification to GCSE English and maths for Level 3 nursery practitioners.

We believe the Government is listening. They have agreed to review the policy, and last week Caroline Dinenage, the Early Years Minister, said that she recognised that "exam grades are important – but not the only proof of quality". This is hugely encouraging.

Amending policy if its effects turn out to be negative is not a weakness, but a sign of strong leadership. Nurseries, parents and the wider early years sector need Functional Skills reinstated as soon as possible.

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