As key supporters of the Save Our Early Years Campaign, we are all too aware of the effect of current GCSE requirements. This, coupled with growing evidence from providers of a sector-wide recruitment crisis, led PACEY to work with its partners in further education colleges. We wanted to gain deeper understanding of the impact of these level 3 requirements.

We invited college leaders to share their views in a survey, and its findings highlighted a worrying decline in the number of students enrolling on Level 3 Early Years Educator (EYE) courses. Almost three quarters (72%) of respondents reported that enrolments on Level 3 EYE courses have decreased this year (2015-16) compared to last year (2014-15).

The GCSE requirements were highlighted as the main factor in the decline. In fact 94% of those we spoke to said that if Functional Skills equivalents in maths and English were allowed in place of GCSEs, more practitioners who currently hold a Level 2 qualification would go on to Level 3.

So it is very clear why so many settings are struggling to find the qualified staff they need to maintain the current number of places they offer, let alone increase these to support future demand including the delivery of 30 hours of free early education.

One college leader went as far as labelling the GSCE requirements ‘ridiculous’ and said as a result they are ‘turning away potentially excellent practitioners because they cannot do well in an exam hall’. We need to face the reality that there is a failure in the schools system to support individuals to achieve these GCSEs whilst they are at school. It is vastly unfair if children are being failed at school and then punished again as they try to forge themselves a career in the early years.

The colleges we spoke to also highlighted challenges that learners face in achieving maths and English GCSEs. Some pointed to the difficulty of achieving a C grade in English when it is a second language, while others cited the complexity of maths GCSE as a barrier to progression.

Alongside the negative experiences of new entrants to the profession, PACEY also regularly hears from adult learners taking up a childcare career later in life. Many are failing at the first step because they have to re-take their GCSEs in maths and English (because their original course is out of date) or they simply cannot find their exam certificates.

Then there is a large community of people already working in early years, qualified to Level 2 and unable to progress again because need to study for GCSEs, alongside their Level 3 qualification whilst also continuing to work in their nursery, pre-school or childminding setting. All these potential practitioners are unable to start or progress their career in early years representing a huge loss not just for them but for the sector.

PACEY was supportive of the new Early Years Educator when first introduced. It was an important part of supporting continued quality improvement in the sector. But we didn’t support the then government’s dogged determination to only recognise GCSE grade C in maths and English as an entry requirement. Fast forward to now and our concerns are being realised – the Early Years Educator is having the opposite effect to the one intended. It is holding back quality and stopping experienced practitioners from progressing in the career they love.

So something has to change. Government can still turn this around and head off the looming recruitment crisis too, by recognising improved functional skills as equivalents to GCSE maths and English. Indeed 73% of college leaders were personally in favour of completely scrapping the GCSE requirements, which just shows how much students, practitioners and providers have lost faith in the current Early Years Educator.

Sam Gyimah, the Childcare Minister until recently, agreed to review the GCSE requirements and to do so as part of his promised workforce strategy. Our new Minister Caroline Dinenage now has to take forward that commitment. We want her to take urgent action that recognises robust, improved Functional Skills qualifications can be equivalent to GCSEs in maths and English, just as they are for other professions. That would send a powerful and positive message to the many young people starting college next month and, at the moment, choosing not to study the Early Years Educator. It is these young people who will be the practitioners delivering 30 hours of free early education in the future. We don’t have a moment to lose to ensure they see early years as a profession worth joining.

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