The road to EY professionalism is paved with…untruths.

This blog post continues my journey through early years as discussed in ‘the liberating rollercoaster’ and the quest for professional recognition. A lovely EY Twitter colleague said that my first blog post sounded like my memoirs, and perhaps it is. This blog may hold no value to anyone else, particularly as it is long and descriptive, but it serves as a tool for me to remember what drove me along the bumpy road I travelled and the choices I made at each crossroads, all of which led me to where I am today.

If you have read this far and you can bear to read on, I suggest you sit down with a nice cuppa, this post really is a tome, a real humdinger…

I finished my BA in the summer 2006, vowing that I had completed studying, at least for a few years. My family breathed a tangible sigh of relief – after 3 years of study the dining table could be cleared of books and papers and wife and mother returned to ‘normal’ functioning. It had indeed been a rollercoaster for everyone not just me. In less than a year I had completed 4 modules and the mother of all research projects. Despite being counselled otherwise by an amazing supervisor, I had embarked on a complex work-based enquiry, involving interviews and videoed play sessions. My squiggle brain managed to weave the threads into a dissertation which received a high grade, but more affirming in many ways, feedback that it should be shared with the support service I worked for in order to influence county wide-practice. I glowed with the pleasure that the project gave me: from inception, through the data gathering process, to the conclusion containing my final suggested outcomes for my workplace – all had set my squiggling brain buzzing. However, as part-time work-based study is wont to do, it had taken its toll on my personal life. It was in this place that the majority of academic work is done; where the blood, sweat and tears are shed; where the frazzled, snapping, insecure student tries to join theory to practice and meet those elusive learning outcomes in order to pass their assessment. My family had stood resolutely behind me, pushing when I cried that I couldn’t do it: I was too stupid, and celebrating with me when I succeeded. They were relieved however that their effort as well as mine was at a close…

However, I had not long received my graduation invitation when once again a provocation was presented. This time a ‘Nursery World’ news article. The then Department for Children, families and schools (oh I mourn the loss of that title and emphasis) announced that as part of its children’s workforce strategy it was introducing ‘Early Years Professional Status’ (EYPS). They billed this as an equal status to Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). Led by the Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC) their rhetoric spoke of ‘pedagogues’ and ‘agents of change’.* This seemed so attractive to me, I wanted to have professional recognition and this seemed to be the start of early years being given that recognition. For me it was not about pay (although that reward is always nice), as much as status and professional recognition. I wanted to be seen as equal to others teaching children. I worked for a service where there was clear demarcation between my role as support worker and that of teacher, and yet I felt we did similar jobs, and after 9 years of working in my role, and degree study, I had equal knowledge and skills. I decided to apply for the pilot EYPS course, and received a place.

It was a long hard road, both metaphorically and physically. To attend the first session in September 2006 I had to travel from the South Coast up to Birmingham. I remember that first day vividly. I had left home at 5am and my head was pounding when I arrived, as was my heart. The warm welcome was lost to me, and all I could hear were the words that the CWDC had adjusted its definition of EYPS being ‘equal’ to QTS. Instead EYPS was to be seen as ‘broadly equivalent’ – each status had its own distinct nature, its own set of skills. The day was full of explanations of assessment processes and paperwork and I didn’t have time to consider the implications of this new definition until the long journey home. Broadly equivalent meant that still the early years workforce was held separate from later age phases in education, however I held the hope that EYPS would change the professional landscape within the sector. After all, the government had made a commitment to have an EYP in every setting by 2010 (later changed to 2015 when it was realised that it needed to upskill the workforce and this would take longer than expected). This commitment was supported by transformation funding, and later graduate leader funding, to support individuals to achieve EYPS and settings to develop their staff **. It was not what I had envisaged at first, but I thought then that it was a start on the road to professionalism, despite this first major untruth I encountered.

The EYPS course was hard. Hard not only because it was an intense 4 months of gathering evidence and writing links between this evidence and the 39 standards, and of physical assessments (oh the scary gateway review, and final assessment day). It was also hard because as a pilot the goalposts changed often and at short notice. But I emerged blinking from the dizzying and intense journey, knowing that I was one of only 2 EYPs in the county where I lived, and the 300 in England. I was lucky enough to be invited to a celebration event in London, and be handed my certificate from my long-time idol and role-model, Floella Benjamin. Leaving that event with my head held high I felt that I was a recognised professional and I was proud…

As the saying goes ‘pride comes before a fall’. After I was awarded EYPS I went to see the leader of the support service that I worked for, presented my dissertation for her to read, (as they had kindly given a small contribution for my uni fees), and asked her if there was a chance of some sort of promotion with my new professional status. She went away with the dissertation and a few weeks later the dissertation was returned via a colleague, and an email congratulated me on my hard work, but said there were no opportunities available. QTS was a requirement for any promotion,and only if a role was vacant. I had in my heart known what the outcome would be, of course – them rules is rules and local authorities at the time were transparent in their hierarchical roles and responsibilities, but frustrating in the inflexible and drawn out processes in order to bring about any change. I loved my job and I had learned more in that role than any other, but I felt such injustice at the decision. I was also burnt out having recently attended one too many funerals of some of the lovely children with complex needs whom I worked with. The time had come to move on.

I cast around for something that would give me some professional recognition and a new, less emotionally-draining challenge and found an advertisement for ‘early years consultant’ in an advisory service – there were 3 posts available. I read the job specification and looked at the requirements. I could fulfil each and every criteria except the last one – to hold QTS. With a push and shove from a dear colleague who had mentored me through my academic journey, I applied. At her suggestion my application form set out how I answered each and every criteria on the job specification. It justified why I felt EYPS was equivalent to QTS and why it was relevant to the position being offered. It worked – I was called for an interview, and surprisingly to me at the time, offered one of the 3 positions.

I was given a flexible secondment opportunity – I cynically wonder now whether the advisory service knew they were taking a risk. EYPS was new and untried, they had the option to send me back from whence I came if I wasn’t up to the role. I had been blown away by the salary in the job details – quadruple the amount I was getting as a support worker. When my formal letter arrived however, the pay was half of that in the advert and I decided to sign nothing until I had a more full picture. On my first day I started along with my two new colleagues who both had QTS. We all had such complementary knowledge of the early years sector as we came from different backgrounds and I did not feel that any one of us had more than the other. Once I got to know them I asked them about their salary and was shocked to hear that both of them were on the salary in the advert, only I was on half that amount. I made an appointment to see the head of the service, who explained that QTS commanded a different salary scale and EYPS was not equal in value. I left unhappy and angry. I composed myself and my response – same role and responsibilities = same salary was the gist. I quoted equality law and drew on all my graduate level writing skills to cry ‘injustice’, threatening to take it further. It worked, and with apologies for a clerical mistake I was awarded the same salary as my colleagues.

I set about proving that I was worthy of the job, and that as an EYP I could do everything that those with QTS could do. In every position I have had in my early years work, I have always found myself surrounded by brilliant early years colleagues – in the main dedicated, passionate and hard working. This job was tough. We would be at work by 8am and update the rating document of the huge number of settings in the area. Our rating would prioritise who we visited first. We travelled the county supporting settings during the day, and many nights would deliver training on the latest national strategy or priority area. We would host twilight network events and training for schools and settings to bring them together. On the majority of nights I wasn’t home until 11pm. Despite trying to bring schools and settings together to share expertise, in many situations there was a clear hierarchy. The assumption by many of the teachers I met was that I had QTS. I started my role holding back the fact that I had EYPS rather than QTS, as I had no stomach for the possible surprised look followed by the unveiled disappointment, or the closed eyes and pinched mouth. After I had a professional, but frustrating discussion with one reception teacher who claimed that EYPS was taking away professional standing from teachers and that it was a cheap poor quality alternative to QTS, I vowed instead to proclaim loud and proud that I was an EYP. Not all teachers were negative at all, some embraced working with early years practitioners and sharing their complementary expertise. Sometimes it was the confidence of practitioners that got in the way, and the familiar-to-me negative feelings of not being worthy.

I had realised that my status and background had the opposite effect on the early years practitioners in settings, they voiced their pleasure to be supported or trained by someone whom they saw as having the same humble roots, and who knew first hand the challenges of working in a setting. I loved that I was a role-model for the practitioners I visited, and when they said they couldn’t possibly get a degree at their age, I would laughingly say “if I can, anyone can!”

Don’t get me wrong, those days were perhaps the hay-days for Early Years in many ways even if professional recognition was hard fought. From 1997 local authorities had money from central government to support the children’s workforce. We had the wonderful Birth to Three Matters Framework in 2003. We had the child centred 2003 initiative of ‘Every Child Matters’ threading through policy and legislation drawing together all professions (many of us still mourn the loss of this language). In 2008 the EYFS was introduced and was followed up by supportive national strategy documents – all of these documents recognised the principles that underpinned practice, and provided pedagogical guidance for practitioners whatever their experience of working in early years. We had funding for Sure Start and children’s centres, and for local authority support services for the children and young people’s workforce. All was (almost) rosy in the garden.

The service that I worked for morphed into something different, and I applied for a new position in a local authority. I was pleased that news of my experience and campaigning from others had changed things in the local authority, and the early years education and care support service had changed any relevant job roles to require QTS or EYPS. I was taken on to run a network for other EYPs and support their further development. The other part of my role was to embed the EYFS further within the county, and develop training. I had discovered a love for teaching early years practitioners, and writing supporting materials and enjoyed this part of my previous role and this new role. At this point I felt strongly that the early years sector was making inroads to being seen as a profession…there was some way to go, but graduate leadership (and the funding provided by this) was supporting the development of the workforce. Life was good.

And then disaster hit. In 2010 the coalition government came into power and local government funding was under threat. The local authority I worked for decided to look at ‘rationalising’ services and to make decisions early. The first restructure meetings began. I found it to be one of the most unsettling dehumanising processes I had encountered. The system sets one person against another; people were aware that they would be going up for one job against several colleagues. It bought out some of the worst sides of humans who are under threat and I could not bear it. At the time an advert came out for a university lecturer, part of which was to lead an Early Years FDA. It was my dream job, and it felt circuitous somehow. I did not feel worthy of such a role, but friends and an old colleague pushed me to apply; “nothing ventured” and the interview experience would be good.

I left the interview exhilarated but without any expectation that I’d been successful. I’d had to present a teaching scenario but discovered my invitation was incorrect and I had 10 mins less to present than I had planned for. The IT didn’t work, and I ended up acting out the video clip I had planned to show. The students at the front were smiley, but the lecturers in the back seemed less so. Little did I know that this would be a typical day of teaching in higher education! I had a phone call to say I had been successful, and I was over the moon despite earning less than my job in the local authority. I was going to be able to provide part-time work-based Early Years students with the same support that I’d been given. It was a privilege and I was up for the challenge. A new professional era began.

I remember being invited to a university EYPS celebration event in the summer after I had been awarded mine, and the speaker saying to those EYPs (with some kind of right, and many kinds of wrong): “ You are pioneers, but remember pioneers are likely to have to remove the arrows from their backs. It is a hard road ahead with the arrows whistling around your ears…” At the time I didn’t see the significance of this, but over the following years I was often reminded of his words.

Looking back I can see how lucky I was to have these professional opportunities in the early years sector. Many of those working in early years still fight for professional recognition and pay that barely equates to a living wage, and nothing near a graduates’s pay.

My road as a pioneer was fraught with different difficulties. For each new role I felt I had to make my application stand out from the crowd, and once I had the role I had to work harder and keener to prove that I was equal to others. I have a thick skin from the times when people from other professions have said, “Early Years? That’s all play isn’t it?” I have learned that there will be silence when I say I am lecturer and they ask what in, and I reply ‘Early Childhood Education and Care’. The usual response is a small smile and a change of subject.

In many of my roles there have been people in power who down-play early years, and my experience is still that people do not appreciate the specialist knowledge and skills that are required for those working in early childhood. I am weary of having to justify what I do, and frustrated by the mistaken belief that I see and read, that anyone can teach the subject or that it isn’t as important as later education phases.

I am still removing the arrows…and they don’t hurt any less than when I was awarded EYP in 2007…we still have a long bumpy road to travel to professional status but with effort we will get there.

* Pam Jarvis provides a great explanation of EYPS – http://histpsych.blogspot.com/2018/05/early-years-professional-status-past.html?m=1

** Dr. Eunice Lumsden’s wonderful doctoral study ‘Early Years Professional Status: A New Professional or a Missed Opportunity’ (2012) explores the context surrounding EYPS. https://www.northampton.ac.uk/directories/people/eunice-lumsden/

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