Early years – Children's Workforce Guide to Qualifications and Training

Charlotte Goddard
Wednesday, September 1, 2021

In January 2021, the Early Years Workforce Commission published a report on key challenges facing the sector, which concluded the workforce was underpaid and undervalued.

Research by the Anna Freud Centre for Children and Families found half of early years practitioners said stress at work had made them feel unwell.

Covid has had a devastating effect on childcare. According to Ofsted, the number of registered providers fell by 3,300 between August 2020 and March 2021. The number of childminders fell by 1,800. The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) found 232 nurseries closed in 2020/21 – 35 per cent more than the year before.

Despite this, the early years sector continues to face major recruitment challenges. The number of nursery workers qualified to Level 3 has fallen from 83 per cent to 52 per cent, according to NDNA research. Nurseries say shortfalls in government funding for free childcare places make it hard to pay attractive salaries.

Level 2

Early years settings must meet specific requirements for the ratio of qualified adults to children, including rules about the proportion of staff with Level 2 and Level 3 qualifications. Level 2 or 3 practitioners must hold a “full and relevant” qualification endorsed by the Department for Education. Staff with endorsed Level 2 qualifications are known as “early years practitioners”. A new standards-based Early Years Practitioner Level 2 Apprenticeship launched in March 2020.

Level 3

Staff with DfE-endorsed Level 3 qualifications gain Early Years Educator (EYE) status. A Level 3 EYE Apprenticeship was launched in April 2019. A new qualification, the Education and Childcare T-Level, launched in 2020 and is set to roll out to all post-16 providers by 2024. Students can choose from three specialisms, but only those taking the Early Years Education and Childcare specialism will gain a “full and relevant” qualification.

The government is consulting on replacing all Level 3 EYE courses with the T-Level and the apprenticeship. However, it has also made a range of Level 3 EYE courses available for free from April 2021 as part of its Lifetime Skills Guarantee.

Early Years Teacher Status

Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS) was introduced in 2013 in an effort to create a graduate-led workforce. The number of students enrolling on Early Years Initial Teacher Training courses rose by 76 per cent in 2020/21 compared with 2019/20 with 628 new entrants. There are three routes into EYTS: undergraduate, graduate employment-based and graduate entry. EYTS is considered the equivalent of Qualified Teacher Status but does not bring equivalent pay and early years teachers cannot lead nursery or reception classes in maintained primary schools.


There are around 320 early years degrees in England with wide variation in content. Not all qualify a graduate to be counted as a Level 3 practitioner. In 2019, the Early Childhood Studies Degrees Network introduced Early Childhood Graduate Practitioner competencies, which can be “bolted on” to a degree and ensure minimum standards such as 80 placement days.

Anglia Ruskin University launched an MA in Education with Montessori course in 2021. The university has also introduced a three-year Montessori degree course which enables graduates to work as Montessori teachers in early years settings.


In June 2021 the government announced a £153 million investment in professional development for early years practitioners, including new programmes focusing on key areas such as speech and language. There are no further details yet.

From September 2021, early years settings must follow a revamped Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum. Resources available to members of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (Pacey) include an EYFS masterclass and a range of bite-sized training courses.

Nasen (National Association for Special Educational Needs) offers free resources and provides training and support in all aspects of special educational needs and disabilities.


Ofsted-registered out-of-school clubs and holiday play schemes are not required to employ staff with childcare or playwork qualifications but a number of qualifications are available. NCFE Cache and City & Guilds offer a range of qualifications. The NCFE CACHE Level 3 Diploma in Playwork (NVQ) is free to adults with no other Level 3 qualifications as part of the government’s Lifetime Skills Guarantee. Level 2 and 3 qualifications developed by Play Wales should soon be available in England.

A group of play employers is developing an apprenticeship standard for playworkers, set to be approved in September 2021. The group has been working with Training Qualifications UK to develop a new qualification to sit alongside the apprenticeship, the TQUK Level 2 Diploma for the Playwork Practitioner.

“By the end of the year we will have created two new training opportunities that contain up to date information and training relating to all the changes in playwork, including the consequences of extended periods of lockdown for children and young people,” says group chair Gill James.

Leeds Beckett University offers a BA (Hons) in Childhood Development and Playwork. The University of Gloucestershire’s Playwork Partnerships courses can be delivered by the university or local providers registered as associate trainers.

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