This week LEYF hosted a visit for our Minister Elizabeth Truss MP. We were pleased to welcome her and ensured she spent time in the Baby Room with 14 under 2s and 5 members of staff! As expected, the children were all complete angels, behaving like well-briefed civil servants; chuckling, smiling and engaging the Minister and her small team with aplomb. Of course, what I actually wanted was them all crying, pooing and falling over to help us bring the critical issue of staff to child ratios to the fore; allowing our Minister to see first-hand how it would feel to play the role of a French auxiliary staff member trained to step in when there was a shortage of staff.
The Minister and I called truce on the ratios issue during the visit. We didn’t talk about it much, as we will never agree that even a flexible change is a good thing. As far as I’m concerned, any such flexibility runs the risk of a slow shift from the norm to the present proposals, which will in turn then become custom and practice. Not only will this see all the issues raised, such as a decline in quality and the creation of a two-tier system, but for those most hard-hearted about the issue, we will see our funding based on staff costs. Less staff means less funding, and soon we will have gone from £6 to £5.09 and the trend of a downward spiral will continue. I support Penny Webb’s efforts and hope you read and sign the e-petition.
Ratios aside, the Minister is keen to raise the profile of the sector and understands that we need help to get the public to understand the importance of what we do and therefore raise the calibre of those wanting to work in the sector. We agreed that we need to change hearts and minds about the enormity of the role of Early Years in the future of society. I suggested that she focus her energy on that and create a dramatic and wide-ranging marketing campaign to push the notion further. The underlying issue of funding never quite goes away though, because it really is at the heart of the matter.
To my delight Elizabeth Truss was interested in Men in Childcare (MiC) and so I invited her to meet the men who are part of the London Men in Childcare Network. I also asked her to read the LEYF report.
The inaugural MiC meeting itself was on Thursday 28 February, and a very happy and uplifting experience it was too (although rather odd to be one of four women in a room full of male practitioners). It highlighted a number of issues; not least the role we have as women to ensure that all female practitioners are open and willing to fully welcome male colleagues, not just as token males but as serious contributors to the sector. I hope the Minister comes and speaks at a national conference LEYF is keen to support later in the year.
My final concern as regards the Minister was that we consider how we manage her demand that all future staff come with A to C in Maths and English. This is not a fool-proof means of ensuring we get staff with a basic grounding in literacy and numeracy, so we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We have some way to go before we can recruit staff with the right attitude and experience, and to get staff with the proposed A to C qualifications as well may be a huge hurdle. I am also worried about losing otherwise great apprentices that have the ability but not the suggested entry qualifications. In this respect, the Minister was very impressed with our apprenticeship programme and its positive contribution to creating an engaged and high quality workforce in the Early Years sector; many LEYF apprentices have moved up the ranks and so help to maintain our fantastically low staff turnover.
The Minister’s suggestion on qualifications is very much a double edged sword and we in the sector need to help her find a solution that suits us all. Remember what happened in the past when Tony Blair announced the need for 100,000 new staff? In order to achieve that we watered down the NVQ to the point that in the end we had a qualification that was more trouble than it was worth. With Nutbrown having considered all these issues and announced the need for a new full and relevant qualification, we need to see that happens. Consultation on this very matter was launched this week by the Department of Education; Consultation on the criteria for Early Years Education qualifications (Level 3). I hope you all find time to respond.
My message to the Minister (apart from relinquishing the proposed changes to ratios) is to launch a national conversation about the importance of Early Years to the future of our society – in fact the very time she should copy the French. It would also help her ambition to raise both our and her profile. A possible win win all round, I would say.