Can EYTs fix the attainment gap?

Liz Bayram and Neil Leitch
Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A Fair Education Alliance report calls for nurseries in deprived areas to employ an early years teacher (EYT), but opinion is split on whether this is the best way to tackle the attainment gap for poorer children.

Professionals are divided over calls to provide early years teachers in all settings. Picture: highwaystarz/Adobe Stock
Professionals are divided over calls to provide early years teachers in all settings. Picture: highwaystarz/Adobe Stock

NO: Neil Leitch, chief executive, Pre-school Learning Alliance

"It sometimes feels as though every few months there is a new report explaining why early years teachers are the solution to a whole range of problems.

We've been told that having graduates in early years settings will not only close the gap between both disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers, but also boys and girls - and then, of course, there's persistent claims that because many settings do not have graduate leaders, they are, by default, of lower quality.

We at the alliance have always supported the call for more early years graduates in principle. That said, we firmly believe that high-quality provision is about more than just academics - it's about a workforce that is experienced, passionate and understands that the early years is about care as well as education. While research has shown that a well-qualified early years workforce does have a positive impact on early outcomes, I can't help feeling that such calls risk applying overly-simplistic solutions to what are often very complex problems.

While the Fair Education Alliance report is right to call on the government to invest more into the early years to help improve social mobility, any suggestion that requiring settings in deprived areas to employ early years teachers would, in and of itself, close the gap between the poorest children and their peers seems both short-sighted and optimistic.

Clearly, other factors, such as home learning environments and the availability and quality of family outreach services, are going to have an impact on the attainment of those more disadvantaged children, and the importance of investing in such areas should not be overlooked.

Also, research on this is not clear-cut. Earlier this year, a study by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics, the University of Surrey and University College London, tracking the progress of 1.8 million children concluded that there is only a "very weak" association between the presence of graduate staff and children's outcomes.

It should never be the case that a child's life chances are defined by their postcode, and it is true that there is a pervasive gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their wealthier peers that we as a country must do more to eradicate. Quality early years staff undoubtedly play a vital role in this, but a degree is not, and should not be seen as, the only signifier of such quality.

Some of the best early years practitioners may not be graduates, but have expertise, passion and an in-depth understanding of how children learn and develop.

These are skills to be valued, not dismissed."

YES: Liz Bayram, chief executive, Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years

"There is no doubt that substantial progress has been made on raising young children's attainment, with scores on the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile up by a quarter.

But there is still a persistent gap between disadvantaged children and their peers that policy makers are finding extremely difficult to close, in spite of increased targeted spending.

Poorer children are still 17 points less likely to be "school ready" at age five than better-off children, down only four points in the past decade. The Social Mobility Commission has estimated it will take 40 years to close this gap if we continue at our current pace.

During this period, quality in early years settings has become closely linked with training and qualifications. Graduate leadership has been found by multiple studies to be associated with narrowing the gap between the most and least disadvantaged children.

In 2004, the Blair government introduced a target that every early years setting be led by a graduate. Although seemingly dropped by subsequent governments, it is still an aspiration much of the sector shares. Many, including Pacey, believe it is crucial to narrowing the gap.

This goal is being hampered by structural problems with the specialist early years graduate qualifications and their relationship to the wider teaching profession. Neither Early Years Professional Status (EYPS) nor its successor Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS) comes with Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), which means they do not attract the same recognition, status, pay, conditions and opportunities as teachers. It also means that graduates holding these qualifications are not permitted to lead teaching in maintained schools, significantly limiting their career options.

Only 10 per cent of private, voluntary and independent staff and eight per cent of childminders have a graduate qualification, usually EYPS or EYTS. By contrast, 29 per cent of all staff in school-based settings have a degree, usually QTS. This qualification divide amounts to a two-tier system.

There is an urgent need for an early years specialist route to QTS to attract the most talented and ambitious entrants to the early years profession, and to retain them, especially in settings working with disadvantaged children and their families. High-quality early education in itself will not eliminate the gap between disadvantaged children and their better-off peers.

That said, the evidence shows that increasing the number of early years specialist graduates in group settings is likely to have a meaningful impact.

There is now a moral imperative that the government invests in this, and that the sector does all it can to help make it a reality."

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