Pandemic Heroes: is it time for the early years and childcare workforce to get the recognition they truly deserve?

Leonie Sweeney and Caroline S Jones
Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The coronavirus pandemic has created enormous challenges for the childcare sector with the latest twist being that despite schools, colleges and higher education institutions instructed to either close or revert to online learning, Early Years settings are to remain open.

The government are deeming it too dangerous for schools to open; however, the same considerations have been overlooked for the early years and childcare sector.

This demonstrates further the disparity between the treatment of staff employed within the education sector and those who are employed within the early years and childcare sector.

As a result, a petition to parliament was launched in light of the government announcement on 4th January 2021, campaigning to ‘Shut all nurseries and early years settings during lockdown’. Within a matter of hours, signatures reached over 58,000, with this figure currently still rising, demonstrating overwhelming support for the Early Years and Childcare sector (Parliament UK, 2021).

Although the Department for Education (DfE) say that children within the early years sector have the lowest rates of coronavirus, and that pre-school children are less susceptible to infection (Gaunt, 2021), it would appear that once again, very little consideration has been given to the staff who deliver the education and care within these settings.

Unlike schools, there are no testing facilities on sites and early years and childcare staff are risking their lives on a daily basis. They are unable to follow the current law in relation to the Tier 5 lockdown (Gov.UK, 2021) restrictions because social distancing is impossible, face coverings are not recommended in early years settings (Gov.UK, 2020), and additional PPE is not provided by the government for their safety. Additionally, Early Years staff are currently not within the priority groupings for the vaccination programme (BBC News, 2021).

Throughout the pandemic, the government have based their decision making and actions on data and science (Gov.UK, 2020), with the overarching message to “Stay at Home, Protect the NHS, Save Lives” (Gov.uk, 2021). However, those practitioners working within the Early Years and Childcare sector could be forgiven for wondering where they fit within this instruction, given the current circumstances. It is no wonder that statistics demonstrate instability within the workforce and in certain areas of the country that 40% of early years and childcare staff leave the sector within two years (Social Mobility Commission, 2020).

Historically, research has indicated that the first five years are critical for a child’s learning and development (Lawler, 2021), with the Centre of Educational Neuroscience (2020) maintaining that most learning happens within the first three years. However, a lack of government investment in the early years and childcare sector has resulted in unacceptably low salaries (Gambaro, 2017), and urgent support is needed if providers are going to be able to continue to recruit and retain quality early years professionals.

The Social Mobility Commission (2020) refers to the early years and childcare workforce as being “underpaid, overworked and undervalued”.

This is highlighted within the current government guidance which states early years graduates within the UK are only recognised as Level 3 staff within a setting (Gov.uk, 2021). Furthermore, the Destination of Leavers in Higher Education data (DLHE) (HESA, 2021) captures and records Early Years and Childcare roles as non-graduate, despite some of this workforce gaining graduate status by completing relevant Early Years and Childhood Studies degrees as per the recommendations of the Nutbrown Review (2012).

This additionally diminishes the importance of the role that early years and childcare workers have within our society, notwithstanding the overwhelming evidence that high quality Early Years provision can have positive effects on children and society (Sylva et al, 2004).

Moreover, according to the Education Policy Institute (2017), the early years sector is viewed less favourably when compared to schools within the UK. The Early Years and Childcare workforce have been dedicated to achieving graduate status (Nutbrown, 2012), but are continually hampered (Bonetti, 2019). However, they remain committed to delivering quality care, education and to raising outcomes for children and families (Ofsted, 2017) with little reward, recognition or Governmental support (McDonald et al, 2018).

With regards to being underpaid, current figures indicate that Newly Qualified Teachers can secure a salary of £26,714 per annum (NASUWT, 2021; National Education Union, 2021), whilst equally qualified early years and childcare workers can expect to initially earn £16,000 per annum (Prospects, 2021), with many practitioners earning well below this figure.

It is widely documented and recognised that the Early Years and Childcare workforce have been consistently placed at the lowest end of the pay sector (Gambaro, 2017), however, this disparity can no longer be justified. It is time for the government to recognise and value the crucial work that the early years and childcare sector provide to society and the economy, during times of pandemic crisis and otherwise.

The government have pledged to invest £44m in the early years sector during 2021 (UK Parliament, 2020), although on closer inspection it appears that this funding is to increase the hourly rate paid to childcare providers for the Government free offer, rather than to improve pay and conditions for the workforce.

Bonetti (2019, p7) confirms that for the childcare workforce,

‘…Not only are childcare workers low paid but they also have seen a decrease in hourly pay in real terms in the last few years. This has left them relatively more dependent on state benefits and tax credits, at a level that is significantly higher than for most other workers’.

There is no doubt many early years and childcare workers have little choice but to go to work regardless of their worries and concerns about being exposed to a deadly virus. Ironically, this is the very same workforce who are expected to ‘close the gap’ for disadvantaged children and families, whilst many themselves are from the very same socio-economic background (Bonetti, 2019).

At a time in history, when we as a nation are relying on our early years and childcare workforce to keep going at the forefront of a National pandemic, these workers continue to be marginalised by their pay, conditions, qualification routes, socio-economic status and

equality of opportunity compared to other sectors. It is indeed a time to call for change, more than ever before.

It is without question that these critical key workers now need to receive the employment recognition that is long overdue. Therefore, it is recommended that:

The early years and childcare employees are provided with the same necessary PPE, vaccines and support as other critical key workers such as the NHS and Education sectors.

The government recognise and reward the early years and childcare employees by implementing transparent pay scales with funding in line with Teacher pay scales to eradicate the current disparity between these employment sectors.

Early years and childcare qualifications and graduate programmes are reassessed to aid the social mobility of the workforce.

For the DLHE data to recognise that roles within the early years and childcare sector are worthy of graduate status and, therefore, amend their categories accordingly.

Further research and investment to be allocated to the highly needed and essential early years and childcare workforce.

There is evidently much more intensive work to be carried out in relation to raising the profile of these overlooked and unsung heroes from the early years workforce.

Cascading the message that they should ‘Go to work, Don’t wear a mask, Risk your life’ does nothing to protect or acknowledge the vital work that they do on a daily basis. It is significantly overdue for these valuable workers to no longer be underestimated and viewed as the poor relation, and is time for them to receive the recognition they truly deserve. They are more than pandemic heroes, they are a sector of highly dedicated, intelligent, loving and caring professionals whose motivation and goodwill has been relied up on for far too long.

Leonie Sweeney is a a teaching professional within the Applied Social Sciences faculty, with many years of experience working within the children and young people sector and currently employed as a Higher Education Lecturer, delivering Children and Young People and Early Years degree courses at University Campus Oldham, having been previously been employed at Stockport University Centre.

Caroline Sarah Jones is an applied social sciences teaching professional with extensive experience working in the children and young people field and lecturing/programme leading in Higher Education. Currently employed as a tutor based within the Education Faculty at Manchester Metropolitan University

  • For a full list of references email fiona.simpson@markallengroup.com

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