When I set out to write a blog, as I said in earlier posts, it was about trying to unpick my disquiet at what was happening to the early years sector whilst situated as I am in higher education, in what are challenging times. If you have come this far, you have put up with my squiggling thoughts as I try to make sense of how I have been shaped by experience, and moulded into the human I am: one who holds a deep respect for our youngest children and what they bring to the world and a strong conviction that we owe it to them and our future to provide the very best that we can in terms of their care, and through that their education. I know that I stand alongside many others in this belief and I find comfort in the fact that however low I am, there are others to take up the baton at times when I feel too weak.
This has been the hardest post to write, but the one that I think I intended to write from the very beginning. However, as in my usual practice of prevarication, where the ironing suddenly seems much more interesting than an unpleasant task, or how my car mysteriously slows down as I get closer to an unwanted destination, I have avoided writing it. Instead, I have revelled in my squiggling thoughts, and rediscovered the long abandoned act of writing for the joy of writing. Funnily, I have avoided many academic conventions (including correct referencing) which I think have sometimes constrained my squiggling brain.
This is likely to be the last post for a while, not least because I am exhausted having been on an emotional rollercoaster of self discovery and confession. I feel culpable at the situation we find ourselves in within the university and early years sector, as should we all perhaps. I have tried to use my little voice in a noisy world through sharing my experiences, whereas previously I have allowed it to be bullied into silence.
As I have written my posts those little voices in my head say “You are not worthy. Who will want to read your ramblings?” To them I say “I don’t care. This writing was always for me and those that understand.” If you agree with the little voices, and believe my writing is self-indulgent, I can at last have the courage to say in the words of my students, with all due respect, jog on. The last part of my story is laid out below – if you wish to indulge me, read on. Once again it is a long post, so perhaps this time a glass of what you fancy will help you to the end…
On the day I walked onto the campus of my first lecturer’s role, I struggled to enter the building. It wasn’t an emotional struggle, but a physical one as I couldn’t open the door! It is something that I often use as an illustration for my students when teaching about Piaget’s ideas on schema…I hadn’t come across a door that opened this way and I was flummoxed. I tried everything I could from my repertoire of how doors open, but nothing worked. Eventually a uniformed man appeared and gestured to the small green button on the wall. I pressed it, the door swung open and I entered a new life. At the same time a new idea was added to my existing schema of how doors work. The security man looked me up and down and said “the building isn’t open to students yet love”. I explained that I was there for my first day as a lecturer and he laughed “you don’t look like one of them”. This was my introduction to academia, and sums up the way I often feel that “I don’t look like one of them” and often don’t sound like some of them. At times the words of academics exclude others. That little girl in the puddle of her own making comes back in times of insecurity and uncertainty. At times these manifest from inside and feelings of being an outsider when no such slur is made; at other times it manifests because of being made to feel that way by a look or words, or by the actions or insidious inaction, of those around me. When we tackle issues of inclusion and diversity in early childhood settings we discuss how important it is that children and families can see images of themselves in the setting as an important first step. In the university sector this is still a significant problem and one that is slow to improve*.
I starting working in higher education in 2010 when early years workforce education and development was at a high point. Graduate leader funding was available for early years settings to develop their staff, and as a result recruitment to early years foundation degrees (FDAs) and part time degree courses was at a high. In many institutions students were interviewed and the strongest were given a place, whilst others were turned away with guidance on how to develop before they tried again. EYPS courses were also thriving and by 2010 over 4.5k EYPs had been created. For those universities offering the short, graduate-based (validation) EYPS pathway the fact that they were growing their own graduates meant that recruitment was good.
Since then the landscape has changed dramatically and recruitment to part-time work-based courses has plummeted in the university sector. I have tried to consider some of the more obvious reasons for this in relation to early childhood and my own experiences:
– the graduate leader funding ran from 2008 until March 2011. Austerity measures after this time resulted in the gradual shrinking of local authority funding. Early years setting support services were systematically slashed and they have largely had to concentrate qualification funding support on statutory qualifications at best.
– following recommendations from the 2011 white paper ‘Higher Education: Students at the Heart of the System’ some universities chose to move away from 2 year part time early years FDAs moving them out into partner colleges. Despite counselling otherwise from those on the ground about the negative outcomes of losing FDAs, some universities decided instead to introduce 4 year part-time full honours degrees. From my own experience and knowledge of the workforce I understand how hard it is to embark on the journey into higher education. Many practitioners believe they are not capable, however as in my own experience, practitioners get a taste for study on an FDA and many move on to complete a top-up full honours degree when through successful results their worth is validated. Four years of study seems like an eternity when you are from a non-traditional background and believe yourself incapable of university education – “not university material” – 2 years however seems do-able.
– The 2012 increase in tuition fees in England has resulted in the downturn of recruitment to part-time courses, as set out in research by the Sutton Trust **. According to their figures, since 2010, the number of part-time undergraduate entrants attending UK universities and English FE colleges has fallen by 45%. Students on part-time work based early years degree courses are poorly paid in the workplace and often non-traditional students with lower qualifications on entry. As the Sutton Trust highlight, the recession has impacted on part-time numbers. The thought of taking on a ‘debt’ in order to study causes great concern when you are living in hard times. Even though these practitioners are counselled that they will in all likelihood not have to pay back the debt of fees, and if they do repayments will be small because of the small amount they earn, the long-term effect of such a debt weighs heavy on the mind. I was lucky enough to get funding for the majority of my study – looking back my upbringing taught me that any debt was wrong and had I been in the same situation I too would have been loathe to study.
– The 2010 coalition government had already scuppered the trajectory for the growth in EYPs by removing the expectation that every setting should have an EYP by 2015. In 2013 it added another controversial nail in the coffin, by changing EYPS to Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS). The EYP standards were changed, and the focus moved away from children’s development in its own right, towards an emphasis on development for school readiness. The leadership of practice element was lost to a greater emphasis on teaching academic skills of literacy and numeracy. Additionally the entry requirements changed and as well as a degree, entrants were expected to have GCSE English, Maths and Science at grade ‘C’ or above and successfully complete the online professional skills test in numeracy and literacy. The assessment processes mirrored those on QTS courses. The changes have, and continue to be a fierce bone of contention – whilst EYTs undergo the same rigorous assessment and the course has the same requirements as those on QTS courses, it does not result in the same pay or status. Once again, we have the thorn of ‘equivalent but not equal to’ and those with EYTS are unable to teach in reception classes of maintained schools. Their expertise remains bounded. Recruitment has plummeted, and the impact of my previous points resulting in less graduates in the workforce, has taken its toll.
– There has been a lack of direction from the government for the development of the early years workforce. As an EPI report highlights ***, the proportion of level 3 qualified staff in early years settings fell from 83 per cent in 2015 to 75 per cent in 2016 with an increase in the cost of level 3 courses from £250 in 2012 to £1,900 in 2015. There are many reasons for this fall in level 3 staff, which are too complex to discuss here, however the knock-on effect is that there are less level 3 students to progress onto higher education courses. The report highlights a number of other worrying trends which indicate the pressure that the early years workforce are facing resulting in ‘a recruitment crisis’****. When times are tough and morale is low, as I can picture in my minds eye on the faces of my students, it is hard to take a leap of faith to study and a mountain of debt. If you only require a level 3 to manage a pre-school why bother with the hassle? Sadly, I see more early years students who study not for their development in the sector, but to escape it.
These are just some of the reasons that recruitment to early years courses in universities has diminished. There have been decisions made over this time, that we might have influenced in some small way and for this reason perhaps we are all culpable. The reason that I started writing this blog is that I am fearful.
I am fearful because the university sector, like other education sectors, is suffering a crisis in revenue and having to make ‘difficult decisions’. The lifting of the cap on student numbers in 2015, the fall of the numbers of 18 year olds and the marketisation of the university sector have led to a fall in student numbers in many institutions *****. Universities are living in uncertain times in relation to their finances. The government hint at a decrease in tuition fees ****** and whilst a decrease would be welcome to some in real terms, universities are already looking to tighten their belts should this happen. I can see the links to the cuts made to local authorities where we saw a cut to services, a cut in staff and a culture of fear for those without power. In relation to the early years sector those cuts have had a real and detrimental impact.
…and so I am deeply fearful. I am fearful that in the casting around for money saving and cost cutting the eyes of those in positions of power within universities will fall upon part-time courses where recruitment is low. I am fearful that instead of looking towards the future and a strategy for growth, instead they will be reactive, thinking only of the short-term effects of cuts on today.
I am fearful for the knock on effect of any cuts in part-time HE courses on the development of our early years workforce. The eyes of government are currently turned to other more complex things, but to my mind they have long been blinkered. We need a joined up approach to workforce development led by clear policy and we need investment. As a sector we have wonderful squiggle-thinking individuals trying to shore up the crumbling landscape by creating new visions, new initiatives and maps through the complexities of workforce training. Like working on a large unruly old mansion which has had different bits added along the ages, they work with others to try to mend the foundations and bring order to the chaos. The problem is the roof is leaking and until we fix that, the building continues to leak and ruin what is beneath. We need the clear strategy and policy from above, otherwise our disparate private, voluntary and independent settings choose their individual path through the complex bumpy landscape.
In my blog ‘the liberating rollercoaster’ I ended by saying that I stood on the shoulders of the university tutors “in the same university position that they inhabited, in my small attempt to give a hug to those little children, now adults, who have been made to feel “I am not worthy”. We are in danger of that being lost, and I feel bereft and culpable.” I hope that this post gives a sense of why I feel so bereft because my squiggling brain imagines the possibilities and thinks the unthinkable.
Some may think that I could have put my points across in a more succinct and direct way or that a blog may not be the way to voice concerns, or perhaps that more direct action is what is needed. However, I wanted to illustrate the path of one real person through the complexities of working in the early childhood sector and to demonstrate the difference that higher education had on one real person. Too often decisions are made without too much thought to the effect of a decision on less powerful individuals…and so I am using my little voice in a noisy world. I am an EYP, an agent for change.
At last I am spent…and my furious writing journey (and annual leave) is at an end for the moment. Thank you to those that accompanied me on my meanderings…I will likely return after taking a breath, dusting myself down and finding a space again to write.