Do graduate staff = quality provision for the under-fives? by Mannie Burn

There has been much debate recently about the benefits of well qualified early years staff and, in particular, the impact of Early Years Teachers on children’s learning and progress.

A YouGov poll commissioned in January this year by Save the Children for the ‘Early Development and Children’s Educational Outcomes’ research briefing1 reports that 71 per cent of parents surveyed said they would prefer their child's nursery had an early year teacher to ensure their child would not start school falling behind.
The previous week saw publication of a research study focusing on 1.8 million children born between September 2003 and August 2006 that concluded a child’s educational achievement at the end of their reception year is only ‘slightly’ higher if taught in nursery by a qualified teacher or Early Years Professional (EYP)2.

“Our research finding that having a member of staff qualified to graduate level working in the nursery has only a tiny effect on children’s outcomes surprised us, given existing research that finds well qualified staff have higher quality interactions with children.

It is possible that our results are partly a consequence of the types of qualifications held by those working in private nurseries, as these are not generally equivalent to the qualifications of teachers in nursery classes in schools.”

In the study half of the children accessed nursery provision in a school and were taught by a qualified teacher. The other half attended nurseries and pre-schools in the private, voluntary and independent sector where less than a third of settings employed a teacher or Early Years Professional (EYP). Perhaps, having only a small number of well qualified graduates (ie Early Years Teachers/EYPs) is worth exploring here.

I agree with Neil Leitch’s point in Nursery World3 that ‘simply being a graduate’ is not enough - having a degree in a subject not related to child development or early childhood education will not equip a graduate with in-depth knowledge of how to support the learning of babies through to five year olds across the Early Years Foundation Stage age range.

But is Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) really the gold standard for an Early Years Teacher? If it is QTS with an early years specialism, then yes for children from age 3. But not all QTS teachers in early years departments have trained with an early years specialism.

A further factor that can affect such discussions, is that it is often implied or assumed that training for Early Years Teacher Status is at a lower level and less rigorous than QTS training. Early Years Initial Teacher Training (EYITT) leading to EYTS is just as rigorous. It follows the same ITT requirements. It is structured around a set of professional standards in the same way as ITT (QTS). But, and this is the crucial difference, the EYITT standards have been specifically designed to cover the essential knowledge, skills and understanding for leading the education and care of babies to five year olds. Those with EYTS have strong knowledge of how to support early speech and communication, how to work in partnership with parents and families, how to prepare children and teach early reading and mathematics and how to lead their colleagues to focus on learning and development with parents and children. The Teachers’ Standards (Early Years) have the same rigour as the Teachers’ Standards that are used for primary and secondary QTS ITT and, importantly, they are specialist early years standards.

I think there needs to be more awareness of the strengths of EYITT trainees. Most undertake their training not as new graduates or career changers but as experienced and expert early years practitioners, employed in a range of roles in a range of early years settings (including schools). They are committed to extending their influence in their settings through EYITT and to enhance their knowledge and understanding of how to support individual babies’ and young children’s learning in partnership with parents. EYITT also increases their knowledge of leadership styles and approaches so they can better support and challenge their colleagues to focus more on learning. One of our EYITT trainees, who unusually also has QTS, says:

“My baby placement was a profoundly moving and mind opening experience. I now know to watch, follow, enable and allow whereas before my EYITT training I was too often in a directive and ’telling’ mode. I have been in awe and very surprised at the depth of learning babies can go to if they are skilfully and sensitively enabled. I now realise just how low my expectations were of young children, even though I have many years’ experience as a Primary School teacher. I am glad I have had a chance to recognise this and raise my game.”

I also agree with Neil Leitch’s hope that "this research will…prompt further research and debate into what ‘quality’ in the early years actually means". It is essential that the whole early years age range is included in the research, ie what does quality mean for babies, one, two, three, four and five year olds and as applied to all aspects of their learning and development, rather than a narrow view of their preparedness for formal reading and mathematics.

In the same way that the secondary sector needs more physics teachers with their own specialist knowledge, the early education system needs specialist highly trained Early Years Teachers. With an increasing population, with more provision for two year olds in schools and the imminent 30 hour funded nursery provision this need is urgent.

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