Tag Archives: Qualifications

A Thank You Letter to Mr Clegg

Dear Mr Clegg,

Thank you for listening to us about the potential changes to the ratios.  I can honestly say we were genuinely delighted that you understood our perspective and agreed to drop the policy. What I hope you and your politician colleagues understand is that if the sector believed the policy would benefit children, the majority would support it and go out of our way to make it work. In this case however, except for those few happy to take the King’s Shilling (!), we as a group agreed and understood the negative impact it would have. The Early Years sector attracts a great many passionate and positive people who want to make a difference – not in a clichéd and trite way but in a pragmatic and constructive one. A good group of people to have on side, I would urge you to have more dialogue with them.

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Can the Genie of the Lamp help us find the best staff in Early Years?

LEYF nursery staff trainingThere was a flurry of activity at our Central Office last week because we were interviewing for new staff. We need new staff because we have increased our capacity to accommodate more two-year-olds. The morning saw the arrival of the interview team of LEYF nursery managers and deputies expressing great hope and enthusiasm: new staff, new blood, more stability for teams and less dependence on agency staff. Hurrah!

As someone invited to sit on Professor Nutbrown’s Expert Panel, I supported the intention to have the best quality of staff in our settings. I am keen that the Level 3 is relevant and appropriate. By this I mean that anyone wanting to work with children are given a solid grounding in both child development and how children learn, so they know how to care for a child in a warm, empathetic and good-humoured way. We have long despaired about the qualification being watered down to the point where it has become too broad. As such, I welcome the opportunity to comment on the review of Level 3 qualifications.

Nonetheless, I am a pragmatic person and wondered how we would achieve this baseline quickly enough to meet the needs of the Two Year Old expansion. The outcome of our interviews last week was telling…

Three hundred hits on our advert results in 200 CVs being submitted. These are then followed up with instructions to download the information pack and complete an application form. At this point you see a big drop off: seemingly people just don’t want to write the letter (literacy, literacy, literacy). Those who do are invited to interview. Here at LEYF we call this an assessment centre, where potential staff complete a selection of activities and get to visit a nursery. The final interview pulls all this together to ensure we can both work together successfully.

The outcome is depressing and predictable. We had people who had managed to achieve their qualification within 10 weeks (and you could tell). We had recent college graduates who did not know what was meant by the EYFS. We had candidates who really struggled with spoken English. One manager said they had asked if candidates saw the position as a job or a career (don’t knows just don’t cut it). The enthusiasm began to wane throughout the day…

I chatted with our man from HR: is there not high unemployment he asked, scratching his head? There is, only the trouble with recessions is that staff sit tight, especially those in lower paid jobs (they cannot afford the risk of moving). According to the Office for National Statistics, 2012 saw a 42% drop in people leaving their jobs and the labour market at its least dynamic for 13 years.

So what shall we do? LEYF staff interviewing said they used courage (one of LEYF’s five core values) to help them in the selection process:

We will give one or two a chance for three months, during which time we will balance the risk, complete the induction and observe their impact on the children. (We think it’s a risk worth taking rather than continuing with agency staff.) We will then make a courageous choice to say ‘Goodbye’ if its not working.

Back in HR there is talk of reviewing the selection process. Maybe we will scrap the application form; does it tell us enough anyway? Yes, says Mr HR but we have to remember that any recruitment process must reassure Ofsted that it’s robust.

Does it feel like déjà vu? Remember 1997? The great ambition was to take on 100,000 new staff to expand childcare and enable people to work. Fantastic, if only it weren’t for the same problem we now face: getting enough of the right staff in place to turn the ambition into a reality. Without the power of the genie’s lamp, we can rub all we like, but we simply cannot ‘magic up’ enough good staff. As a result, twelve years later, and further stymied by a dogged recession, we appear to have made little progress.

So, here is a real task for our Minister: use the LEYF value of courage to get out there and talk the sector up!

  • Make schools understand the importance of childcare as a career option
  • Build childcare into the Career Guidance DNA
  • Make child development a key subject on the school curriculum
  • Get the Treasury to understand that Early Years training and learning needs continual funding just like that for school teachers
  • Get the sector in the press for the right reasons

Children are all our responsibility from conception. Invest in this at every level of the education system, starting right here and right now.

A visit from our Minister

Elizabeth Truss at LEYF

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.

Men in Childcare (MiC)

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.

Remember the lessons of Stafford Hospital and listen to Florence Nightingale: don’t let the same happen to two year olds!

Florence Nightingale

The Francis Report on the scandals of Stafford Hospital was published last week, and unless you have never been in the care of the NHS, you will you not be surprised by some of the findings. I speak as an ex nurse, a patient, a friend and relative of patients in a variety of hospitals as recently as last week. Sadly, everyone I know can confirm evidence of poor caring and sloppy nursing care. I have yet to find fault with the emergency services, but it’s recovery on the wards – the very place which can make the greatest contribution to the patient’s recovery – that so often seems to slip. Florence Nightingale said:

Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion.

What would she have made of just one example of the unkindness my dear husband experienced recently I wonder? Recovering from a very traumatic operation, he got up one night to ask a nurse if she would move a particularly loud machine from the ward into the corridor, so he and the other patients could sleep and recover. ‘What about us? We have to put up with the noise out here.’ was her retort! It was never moved.

As Florence would have said:

If you knew how unreasonably sick people suffer from reasonable causes of distress, you would take more pains about all these things.

The Francis Report is full of infuriating jargon, weasel words and failure to stand up to the sacred cow (the NHS). People have indicated that laying blame would lead to scapegoating. Can you imagine this happening in any other sector? We would all be hung out to dry!

There are numerous interwoven problems that develop such culture that has, according to Jeremy Hunt MP, ‘crushed the compassion of doctors and nurses’. This is emblematic of a leadership that is so far removed, no one actually knows what is happening at the core; obsessive targets and a huge emphasis on qualifications leaves nurses thinking that plumping a pillow or having a friendly chat with a lonely worried patient is not their responsibility. We have all heard comments about why feeding patients, changing wet sheets or making someone comfortable is no longer the job of the qualified nurse. I remember the days when the wards were ruled by a rod of iron by the Nursing Sister, and we as nurses would be absolutely slaughtered if the ward was not pristine, the patients uncomfortable or the flowers not standing to military attention. It appears we have slipped to the other end of the continuum.

Now wake up Early Years colleagues and observe the parallels: if we go down the route of ‘the better the qualification the more two year olds‘, I predict we will see the same decline in care. Will children wait longer to have their nappies changed, noses wiped, or made comfortable? Will we have to cut short long and chatty lunches? Will we have reduced time to play, talk, cuddle and provide the loving engagement which is every child’s right? I suspect the answer to these questions will be yes. Never forget, care is the very backbone of education.

Be warned: look carefully at all elements of the More Great Childcare Report; open your eyes and see the implications. And once again, listen to Florence Nightingale on this matter:

Let whoever is in charge keep this simple question in her head… how can I provide for the right thing to be always done?

Would you want us to descend to the level of inhumanity seen at Stafford Hospital? Consider this thoughtfully when replying to the consultation. The consultation document is called ‘Consultation on Early Education and Childcare Staff Deployment’ and the submission form you need to complete can be found here.

A swan and a lark: why the Government’s new childcare report may be the stone that kills both birds

LEYF nursery children planning session
The Government’s new childcare report was launched last week by Elizabeth Truss MP Parliamentary Under-Secretary for State (education and childcare) and generated quite a flurry of twittering.

However I feel it merits a deeper look, especially as I have had to tolerate articles produced by ill-informed journalists and commentators all weekend pronouncing on this report from a position of ignorance. It’s true the Minister shares laudable ambitions with the sector, not least the view that:

Every parent wants the best for their child. They expect childcare to be safe and of good quality, because high quality childcare promotes children’s development in the early years. The availability of affordable, safe and stimulating care is crucial in supporting families by enabling parents to work. It is equally crucial to the development of babies and young children as the foundation for their future success at school and in life.

(Childcare report, 2013).

However, it is the Minister’s rather clumsy attempt to use same single stone to solve the complex issues of childcare costs and quality that is her undoing. The report is her response to two reviews; the Nutbrown Review which examined the robustness of childcare qualifications and the Childcare Commission which looked at cost of childcare.

By using the same stone, the Minister risks killing both birds (the issues of childcare qualifications and the cost of childcare). The problem is the birds are very different; one a swan and the other a skylark. The swan represents childcare for parents, helping them glide into their return to work and masking all the busy paddling underneath to balance the often competing challenges of the working parent.  The skylark on the other hand is high quality childcare, which helps children soar, find their voice and expand their horizons. Re-read Gerard Manley Hopkins‘ beautiful poem The Caged Skylark which captures the consequences of being caged and trapped.

I have tried to simplify the report by highlighting what I consider the eight key points:

1. We need more qualified staff to improve the status and quality of the workforce.

Indeed we do. We have been saying this for an age, and fully support Professor Nutbrown. However, 84% staff have level 3 diploma so let’s not demotivate them.

2. Many staff lack basic skills, so the entry level will include English and Maths A to C.

I agree.  Again we have been saying this for a long time and I recall being lambasted for suggesting such. I continue to believe we need to introduce basic teaching for staff, so they spell and clearly articulate in a grammatically correct way.  How can children learn a minimum of 5000 words if staff cannot string a sentence together? What are some schools doing I wonder??

3. Introduce Early Years Teachers.

OK, but make sure we don’t abandon the 11,000 EYPs and ensure all graduate staff are able to complete this if they want. Most staff cannot afford post graduate training. Employers cannot fund this either, as about 70% do not expect to make any profit this year according to NDNA Business Survey.

4. Deregulate so we can decrease the number of staff to children, particularly under 3s. This means up to one staff member with 6 toddlers and 1 staff member with 4 babies. There are provisos to applying these ratios, such as needing a qualified staff member. A consultation will be launched to decide what qualifications staff should have and the findings will be implemented in September 2013.

This will lead to big problems, not least in the UK where education is child led and based on quality of engagement and suitable environment. There is a genuine fear that we may see lines of chairs with children strapped in for large portions of the day. In addition there are real risks of accidents and an increase in stress levels for both children and members of staff. Children coming from poor families are at particular risk. We know the right pedagogical approach ensures we can play a huge role in helping them soar like skylarks. I could go on…

5. Reduced ratios will mean we can charge less to parents and free up more places.

We absolutely cannot make the figures work here. Reducing the number of staff will only affect the quality of output and standards (see above point).

6. Ofsted is now the sole barometer of quality.

Risky it offers little more than a snapshot once every 47 months.

7. Set up Childminders’ Agencies like Denmark.

I know little about this except Denmark found its methods were cumbersome and expensive and are changing their model.  Ask Birgitte Nyborg from Borgen!

8. Make it easier for schools to take younger children.

Why? Being in school does not in itself guarantee quality. Is this a move towards universal childcare? Better check on the Nursery Education Grant rates then, as schools may prove quite expensive.

So there is much to debate, and I would urge we all respond to the consultation. In the meantime, I would challenge the Minister to continue investigating how the full £5 – £7 billion is spent on childcare (it seems the figure changes depending where you read it). Page 16 of the childcare report is too vague in my opinion.

In the meantime, perhaps those of you caring for under threes should consider recruiting Michael Rosen‘s Mary Anne…

She would leave the room
And you wouldn’t mind
But then you’d discover
She’d left her eyes behind

 However even Mary Anne could not keep up the pace (no matter her qualifications)…

It was a terrible shame
That it was all so drastic
But that’s what happens
When you are made of elastic!

Michael Rosen, Book of Nonsense

Do you really need GCSE Maths grade C to have a laugh or do a sum?

I am very pleased to be able to represent LEYF as a member of Professor Cathy Nutbrown’s Expert Panel. The Panel is examining the standard and range of qualifications for those working in Early Years settings.  It’s a hot topic and one that needs calm, rational and measured consideration.  It’s also an issue that powerfully demonstrates that rhetoric and good intentions don’t always translate well into practice, and no solution will be perfect.  And it further requires a steady and pragmatic hand which Cathy certainly has.

Before anyone gets excited about being called an expert, the actual reality of being on a panel is that you are expected to do some work and research an issue or two.  At the last meeting, I agreed to examine the question of whether it is necessary for those entering the profession to have a grade C in GCSE Maths and English. In order to do it justice, I sought some support from my friend Sue, who put her considerable research skills to good use finding out whether or not having these grades leads to better teaching of the subjects, higher thinking skills and greater ability to apply abstract concepts in a range of situations. I also needed to know that if having a Grade C was essential, could we get everyone up to that standard through Continuing Professional Development (CPD), and would it create barriers to potential apprentices, trainees and other staff from diverse communities.

What we found was that although research from OECD and EPPE tells us that higher qualified staff offer a more reliable predictor of better quality – with a more positive impact on children’s future learning and development as a result – there is little data to securely support the correlation between the levels of formal qualifications in literacy and numeracy among Early Years practitioners and children’s achievements. The best we could find was the Millennium Cohort Study which stressed the links between quality of provision in a setting, the level of qualifications of the staff and the Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale (ECERS) analysed by subject, concluding that…

Continued priority needs to be given to strengthening the non-graduate early years workforce, who continue to make up the majority of staff. All practitioners need to have a clear grasp of how children’s understanding of mathematics develops; they need to be comfortable with mathematical language and able to support children’s play as outlined in the previous section on effective mathematical pedagogy.” Milleniun Cohort Study

The most interesting findings emphasised something our tutor for Key Skills previously said, namely how the psychological barrier people have created about Maths is often the greater hurdle to them getting a grade C.  I recently saw this in action among a group of otherwise experienced LEYF staff who needed to get a grade C in Maths as part of their degrees; the level of anxiety this generated, despite us providing specialist workshops, was such that even a chocolate fest could not reduce the waves of panic in the room. (Not even the promise of our favourite Curly Wurly!) The lack of enthusiasm for Maths, often acquired from poor teaching, creates a self perpetuating cycle which flies in the face of the Williams Review(DCSF 2008a) which found that…

One of the distinctive features that support high quality mathematical learning includes practitioners’ enthusiasm for, understanding of, and confidence in, mathematics.” Williams Review

For those of us running nursery businesses, the lack of mathematical confidence has greater implications, given the need to grasp Maths in action through an ability to understand and manage occupancy, staff deployment, pricing and basic income and expenditure; all critical skills needed to keep the business going.  (Sadly, I have seen far too many nurseries slip into disaster because of the manager’s inability to read the numbers.) And I know this statement will send Hitchcock shivers down the spines of some LEYF staff, in fact I’m sure most would much rather sit through the Director’s Cut of Psycho in a dark room on their own than do the books.

But if we see our job in Early Years as being the educators of the youngest children, and therefore needing to inculcate in them positive attitudes about Maths and literacy (especially Maths), then we have to look at the bigger picture and the costs to society. The CBI Education and Skills Survey 2011 reported that employers found widespread weaknesses in the core skills of their employees, with almost half reporting problems with literacy and numeracy. KPMG estimates that the cost to the public purse each year from failure to master basic numeracy skills is up to £2.4 billion.

So what to do? Luckily I am not Cathy Nutbrown, and my task was to merely present ideas and information, whilst Cathy gets to analyse and draw a conclusion.  Still, she is ably assisted by our Civil Servants, who I am sure have all the relevant C grades. In the meantime, I suggest we all ensure we have regular planned Maths activities, lots of Maths in the routine and that we practise our timetables while we do our Pilates.  If all fruit fails then watch Dara O Briain’s School of Hard Sums (formerly called ‘Dara O Briain’s University of Practical Mathematics’) where humour and numbers mix. Why not? Have a laugh, do a sum!

A little of what we fancy? Better qualified chefs please!

My Grandmother always said that a little of what you fancy does you good. Sadly, according to recent medical press, we are all too often unable to stop at a little and these days consume far too much of what we fancy. As a result, we are fast becoming one of the most overweight nations in the world, with all the health issues that accompany such obesity. Every week it seems there is a new report about the damaging effect of some familiar sugar laden food – the most recent being a link made between aggressive behaviour and fizzy drinks, and their tendency to heighten the risk of heart disease.

Of course, Children are particularly at risk, and given that prevention is better than a cure, I began to look at how nurseries might do their part to educate children and families about food by serving the best. Interestingly, despite all the TV coverage gained by Jamie Oliver with his admirable campaign to rid our schools of turkey twisslers, he rarely focused on the chefs and cooks actually preparing and serving the foods (aside from Nora, his trusty dinner lady). No effort was made to look into the qualifications available for chefs, which could be used to up the ante and go some way to ensuring and embedding high quality procurement, preparation, presentation and delivery of food to children, while also informing staff and parents of what makes healthy eating.

The history of chefs and cooks in both nurseries and schools tells a random tale, from those simply helping out as an interested parent to an agency chef from a local restaurant. Either way, most nursery staff will tell you that having a good chef – one who likes cooking for children and is both interested and motivated – is a joy and sadly not as commonplace as we would like!

When I began my research, what I soon found (though on a smaller scale) was not dissimilar to what Professor Cathy Nutbrown found about Early Years qualifications: a myriad of organically developed courses of varied quality with no core set of standards. The situation for chefs was worse inasmuch as there were generic qualifications which taught the basics, but no effort made to develop anything that would apply their knowledge to cooking specifically for children. CPD courses tended to focus on health and safety, food safety and manual handling – which though relevant did not lead to better teas and sauces or greater motivation and knowledge about what children love to eat.

Driven by this baffling discovery, I searched out individuals with similar interests and found a group of nutritionists, dieticians and others passionate to improve the food experience for small children. (At this point, the School Food Trust was focused unsurprisingly on schools, so Early Years had not been given any attention at all – despite national fears about obesity and heart disease amongst the young as a direct result of their awful diet.)

When I then surveyed the sector – including colleagues in Wales and Scotland – to see if there was any interest in a qualification for chefs in Early Years, the  overwhelmingly positive response that came back led me to dip my toe into the deep and mysterious waters of national standards and qualifications development. And quite frankly, given the complexity of process and language, I am amazed so many qualifications exist! Fortunately for me, People 1st (the skills sector for hospitality) and City and Guilds fully understood what I was after and so supported my efforts – especially useful, since my learning curve included regular viewing of Master Chef, Saturday Kitchen and Two Hairy Bikers. (I liked these most of all, particularly as they could rustle up a good curry by the side of the road – no Curly Wurly breakfasts for them!)

On Monday, 19 March (tomorrow, as I write this), we hope to take the final step on the long ladder of getting approval of the draft National Standards in order to formulate a set of Level 3 Qualifications in Professional Cooking for Early Years Chefs. We will present the key elements of a qualification to employers and will be sharing the same premise as Professor Nutbrown, namely that employers must be able to tell what skills and knowledge they can expect when employing someone with that qualification. It will include everything from basic knife skills to a real understanding of child nutrition.

At the very least, I sincerely hope this single step will be one more to help professionalise a growing industry which exists to provide a support service to children and their families, and in so doing will show yet another critical added value we have to offer society.