Why a Degree is Worthwhile for Early Years Practitioners

There may not be one magic wand we can wave to guarantee outstanding early years practice, but the role degree-level education can play should not be underestimated, says Judit Horvath…

Coming from a different culture, I have always thought that my approach to children was ‘just somehow different’. I often associated differences – wrongly – with a lack of quality.

Quality education is an oft-discussed subject in the early years sector, but definitions and concepts of quality differ significantly from nation to nation; therefore – I understand now – the notion of quality is naturally different in my native Hungary and in the UK. Although certain mutual basic elements can be defined to establish the ‘secret recipe’, quality for an early childhood education and care system is ultimately determined by the knowledge and experience of its workforce, cultural beliefs and values about children, including parent and teacher expectations about the goals and functions of early childhood programmes. The early years framework of a country is influenced by factors like its national economic situation, working market, cultural traditions and choices, and of course, by the government. In one country, quality may be a question of modern early childhood provision to meet professional demands; in others, it may be a question of maintaining an affordable childcare system for all, or may be the effort to support young children faced with diversity and immigration.

Defining the quality of early years, in my opinion, is a major issue for the sector in the UK. It is what both providers and users agree to look for in an early years setting. Is there a magic wand we can wave to achieve quality? I don’t think so. That said, there have been various research projects and reviews in the last couple of years that aimed to identify the indicators of good quality early years education, the traits and skills of the good early years educator, and the necessary elements of the stimulating early years environment. Although such research is likely to be neverending, almost all researchers seem to come to the same conclusion: settings which have staff with higher qualifications, especially with a good proportion of trained teachers on board, show higher quality and the children in their care make significantly more progress.

Encouraging education

Following on from the EPPI project, the Nutbrown review is yet another great advocate of a well-qualified workforce. The final report of the independent review of early education and childcare qualifications stresses the need for high-quality qualifications for the workforce, to narrow the gap between disadvantaged children and their peers. Professor Nutbrown said,:

“I have seen many inspirational examples of dedicated staff providing the best environment for playing and learning. I want more young children to benefit from this […] Every child deserves excellent early education and care, and every parent should be confident that their child is getting the best. Early education and care needs to support babies’ and young children’s all round wellbeing and development. That is why I want the workforce to really understand child development, the importance of play, and have good English and maths skills…There is no doubt that high-quality education is important. We need to make sure the early years workforce has the necessary skills, qualifications and experience to provide the very best for our young children.”

In the Eastern European countries and Eastern early education systems, including my native Hungary, the world famous Reggio Emilia, Romania or Slovakia, the early educators are degree-qualified teachers. Does it really make a difference? It really does. Graduate training changes people’s view about the world and themselves as professionals. It provides people with the ability to challenge situations and the tools to look for answers. It also provides a sound theoretical knowledge and the professional confidence to question and search. It prepares people to realise and enjoy the personal rewards of their learnt profession.

Early years teachers, various teaching networks and professional bodies have been arguing over the last two decades for a graduate workforce in early years education. The sector has been tirelessly developing degrees with the aim of providing new graduates who have a good knowledge of children and child development, who can professionally connect with the families and the local society, and who can provide practice that is linked with modern research-based understanding, up-to-date interest and continuous development – all this with the ultimate aim in mind of bettering children’s services through a well-rounded, complex pedagogy. The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education established for the first time a national reference point for honours degree requirements in this subject area. The Network has argued for the education of a graduate early childhood worker who can combine care and education of young children from birth and has an equivalent pay and career structure to an early years qualified teacher.

Magic wand! The UK government wants all early years settings to have graduate-level staff. Problem solved? Not really. The professionals in the sector keep reporting that with pay still low, it is not worth doing the training. Looking at the example of Hungary, I am not sure. I am from a poor country, where early years teachers’ salary is almost the lowest. Many – and I mean many – still choose this profession. In Hungary, legally, an early years educator has to have a degree. There is a tradition of high-quality education and respect for the sector (for the children and their teachers). There is a culture of training that changes and develops the person, enables and stimulates a human being to make the effort for another human being, regardless.

More than money

Working with a number of nursery educators as a manager in the UK, I can state that the will and the effort are clearly apparent amongst those working in nurseries. I see them on a daily basis struggling through theoretical material to learn more and do the best for the children. And those are the people who want to make a difference. Those are the people who will do the training and who deserve the high-quality education, the professional acknowledgement and the ongoing appreciation.

Quality of education, after all, encompasses the experience, cultural beliefs, values about children, expectations, goals and above all the willingness, care and love provided by the educators in the sector. These are the elements that are possessed naturally by those wanting to work with children. What education can provide with its ‘magic wand’ is knowledge, but the lack of knowledge does not mean lack of quality in this case; it means the lack of education. Many reports published by Aspect and other unions, professional bodies representing professionals working in education and children’s services, forecasted that, unless suitable pay and conditions are put in place for Early Years Professionals and other graduates in the sector, the idea of a graduate early years workforce will be in jeopardy. Armed with their new qualification, EYPs, graduates could leave the private, voluntary and independent sector altogether, for more attractive careers. I agree, they could, but it does not mean they will. When I say lack of education, I do not simply mean the lack of training. I mean the lack of educating people about how much more a career in early years education can give than pay. And here is the magic wand that provides quality!

Judit Horvath is a nursery management adviser.