Seeking a clear direction

Increasing professionalism within the sector has always been a key aspiration. But how can professional career paths be mapped out when recruitment and graduate leadership are in crisis?

There is a pressing need to examine issues to do with professionalism in early years and the challenges currently facing those who are attempting to forge a career in this area. The lack of jobs within the sector is at an all-time low and the potential opportunities which await those in the profession remain unclear (Kimberley, 2016). So what does professionalism look like?

The first challenge here is that I am essentially looking at a specific component of a practitioners’ career in a broad field of opportunities for different career paths. So, when professionalism is being discussed, it must be considered in the most generic sense.

Second, the fact I have to acknowledge the broad spectrum of career paths is evidence of the challenges in regard to professional development and difference in careers. It can be difficult to gain a clear perspective on how the routes join up, and which should be taken.

It was only during my undergraduate degree that I was informed of the range of roles I could work in, such as a specialist play worker in a hospital, a nanny, a self- employed childminder, a speech and language therapist or social services worker – or I could further my training and become an early years teacher. I doubt these roles would have even been explained in such depth, if I wasn’t undertaking the degree.

Furthermore, professionalism in each role is specific to its particular attributes. Yet the recruitment crisis seems to underpin a larger contextual influence with regards
to the generic notion of professionalism; for those in transition to higher progression roles and for all staff generally. Kimberley, in 2016 stated that, ‘Many early years settings feel they are experiencing a recruitment crisis and are finding it increasingly difficult to hire new practitioners. Not only is hiring practitioners becoming difficult for some settings, but also keeping practitioners on the payroll, as many are leaving childcare or moving to different types of settings.’ This issue in gaining and maintaining staff in the setting is only getting worse.

Losing staff to other sectors
In May 2018, Gaunt noted that, ‘Among Level 3 staff who have left nurseries in the last year, 80 per cent have found jobs outside early years and childcare, followed by almost half of graduate staff and early years teachers. Of those nurseries which took part in the survey, 86 per cent reported losing staff in the last 12 months, some saying that Level 3 staff have left to work for supermarkets or call centres.’

Gaunt (2018) also acknowledges that although the nurseries want to pay their staff more, they just cannot compete with other sectors. It is clear from this research that there is an increasingly high staff turnover that these members of staff are not always moving on with the intention of professional development in the early years area.

The reasons attributed to this high staff turnover range from the excessive amount of paper work, low pay, long hours, work load and GCSE requirements which mean that some workers have to resist exams or leave the position as they are no longer meet the qualification requirements (Kimberley, 2016). This touches on another key issues – the notion of qualifications and training in child care in accordance with the idea of upholding professionalism.

Pay inequalities are ‘simply wrong’
One trajectory of an early years educator, may be that of a nursery practitioner. This status requires a Level
3 qualification in child care and GCSE English and Maths (A to C) are often necessary. Through experience and in-house training this may lead to a team leader or supervisory position. The next stages require further education, most likely attending university which may bring about a teaching or management position.

In addition to this, there is a common route of progression to the status of teacher that is established in society, and this has traditionally been synonymous with respect and power as well as higher financial pay.

Unfortunately, as Owen (2018) acknowledges in her article, Early Years Teachers doing more work for same pay: ‘According to research from Voice and PACEY, only 37 per cent of those with Early Years Teacher Status had improved pay as a result of qualifying. This compared with 66 per cent of those with QTS who said their income improved as a result of their qualification. The report’s authors said this inequality is “simply wrong”’. Therefore, this suggests that improving the education
of an individual does not necesssarily improve their professional prospects or pay.

The problem of a clear career pathway, and the impact this has on graduates in particular, has also been emphasised by Carolyn Silberfeld, chair of the Early Childhood Studies Degree Network. Speaking at last year’s Nursery World Business Summit she emphasised the importance of having graduates in the skills mix and said that while healthy numbers of candidates were coming through to undertake the Early Childhood Studies degree, not enough were following up with a
childcare career.

‘The majority of Early Childhood Studies graduates go into professional programmes such as teaching or retail. This is just not how it should be,’ she said.

The concept of the professional role is another battle in itself; it is easy to see how those who work with children become, nanny, chef, cleaner, educator, setting administrator and, when disputes arise, mediator!

Towards professionalism
I argue that it is the merging of roles which also provides difficulties in maintaining a model of professionalism
in the early years setting. While adaptability is vital when working with children and the merging of roles is inescapable, professionally, there should be clear boundaries of how each job interlinks with the other. Rather than ‘just pitching in’, how do a nursery assistant, early years teacher and nursery manager work in conjunction? Then placing the relevant responsibility and importance on each of those roles will ensure the staff feel as if they are contributing, are valued and vital to the functioning of the team.

So, what does a responsible role in the early years profession look like? The answer resides in a mixture of experience, training and theory. Byrne (2018) notes that the qualities needed include: ‘Committed to working with children...patient...willingness...creative... and personable’. These are traits which are essential in providing quality care for the children in your setting.

The next priority must also be the legal documents which secure the safety of a practitioners’ work with children. This is often achieved through an enhanced Disclosing and Barring Service check (DBS). Then, as someone with an academic background in education,
I recognise the importance of qualifications and the theoretical knowledge that comes with university degrees. I know my degree has ‘broken’ patterns of thinking and has enabled me to evaluate and adapt quickly. I learned how to foster environments which promoted safety, creativity and exploration. There is the potential to develop knowledge on how best to support children with special educational needs or to specialise in your chosen subject area, which will provide you with specific expertise; something different that you bring it the team. Your knowledge maybe drawn upon for in-house training or to work specifically with a certain group.

Similarly, from the age of 15, I was seeking experience working with children in different settings; pre-school in a primary school, nursery, primary school and secondary school. Ultimately, experience is not something which theoretical knowledge can replace – and vice versa. But both are valuable in understanding the projection of where you fit best in a sector which is almost secretive about the potential spaces of progress.

This professional progress, as has already been established, does not always equate a level of higher pay and reduced level of work; it can mean steps sideways

(Owens, 2018). This is not ideal, but arguably, it is realistic. Furthermore, with such high staff turnover, the focus of the team should be in enhancing every
staff members’ experience. As such, promoting a setting which is enjoyable to work in and that tailors its support to providing advice on potential spaces for further development.

Essentially, should settings be refocusing their attention to the individual professional’s passion? By acknowledging what those members of staff are more interested in, it would allow the setting to encourage them to partake in that task more often, hopefullybolstering experience and enjoyment. This could have the net effect of reducing staff turnover and increasing job satisfaction and professionalism through experience.

Ask the staff: What do you want to do? What do you want to change in early years education? Where do you want to make a difference? Then tailor their work to addressing this as much as is possible. It is unlikely that their profession will be entirely specialised in that area, but by allowing them that insight, it benefits the setting, enhances the practitioners’ overall knowledge and subsequently, helps the children.

Job satisfaction
In addition to the experience and theoretical knowledge, passion goes a long way in evidencing your capabilities and determination. There will always need to be that adaptability and flexibility that arises with experience, as well as some background in theory in securing the profession you want in the early years sector. But passion and enjoyment in that role will ensure job satisfaction and maintain the numbers of staff.


  • Professionalism is difficult to define in the early years sector as it generally consist of both training and experience

  • There is a drastic reduction in the recruitment and retention of early years staff

  • Gaunt (2018) states that, ‘Among Level 3 staff who have left nurseries in the last year, 80 per cent have found jobs outside early years and childcare... and of the nurseries being examined, 86 per cent reported losing staff in the last 12 months, some saying that Level 3 staff have left to work for supermarkets or call centres.

  • Similarly, Owen (2018) acknowledges that ‘Early Years Teachers doing more work for same pay’, so qualifications do not always guarantee higher pay

  • There are many professions within the early years sector, so it is worth researching which area you feel most passionate about. Perhaps the priority, in terms of recruiting and retention should be the professionals’ interest and where their passion lies. This would hopefully provide further job satisfactio

    Save the Children: It all starts here – tackling the crisis in the early years teacher workforce starts%20here.pdf
    Ceeda: About the early years workforce workforce

Byrne, K. (2018) The Stonebridge College Guide to Becoming an Early Years Practitioner. blog/early-years-and-child-care/a-guide-to-working-as-an- early-years-practitioner

Cache (N.D) Introduction to Careers in Early Education
and Childcare. introduction-to-careers-in-early-education-and-childcare.docx

Gaunt, C. (2018) Early years recruitment crisis putting Government’s 30 hours policy at risk. https://www. recruitment-crisis-putting-governments-30-hours-policy-at- risk

Kimberley. (2016) Early years recruitment in crisis. http:// recruitment-crisis/

Owens, H. (2018) Early Years Teachers ‘doing more work for same pay’. news/1164193/early-years-teachers-doing-more-work-for- same-pay

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