No way to plan a recovery...

Written by: Deborah Lawson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The early years workforce is in no mood to return to the past ways of working once the pandemic recedes. We have to move forward differently, says Deborah Lawson

“We are an undervalued, underpaid sector that clearly no-one cares about.”
“The government has made it quite clear that early years are not educators and are a babysitting service.”
“Early years staff will leave the sector in droves. We are unsupported, unprotected and furious.”

These are the views of some Voice Community early years practitioners, primary teachers, headteachers and support staff members who took part in our recent survey on the future of education (Voice, 2021). Their evidence is clear:

  • The early years workforce does not feel valued.
  • We cannot return, post-Covid, to how things were. We need to move forward differently.
  • Education must focus on long-term recovery and mental health, not short-term “catch-up”.

Sharing their experiences of the pandemic, members told us that:

  • Staff have worked incredibly hard under challenging circumstances.
  • Staff in the sector do not feel valued.
  • Low pay is a specific problem in early years settings and for classroom teaching assistants.
  • Funding in the early years sector is inadequate and inconsistent.
  • Young children have lost social skills during the pandemic.
  • Online learning has not been as effective as in-person-learning; many staff haven’t been supported to manage online learning.
  • The gap between the most and least advantaged children has widened.

The challenge of recovery will be broader than academic “catch-up”, with children’s mental health members’ overwhelming concern.

There was also a clear message that the burdens of administration and standardised achievements are hampering staff’s ability to focus on supporting and educating children.

We hope the implementation of the revised Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) Framework in September (DfE, 2021) will help to reduce administration tasks, but only time will tell.

As a result of the pandemic, as well as long-term trends, there is a recruitment and retention crisis facing the sector – 22 per cent of all Voice Community members who responded to our survey plan to leave the sector within the next three years, primarily because of role and workload pressures.

For higher level teaching assistants and classroom support respondents, this figure was 19 per cent, but it rose to 28 per cent for nursery/early years respondents.

In the survey report, members’ recommendations included:

  • Mental health support for children and staff.
  • More support staff.
  • An increase in funding targeted towards disadvantaged learners; the Pupil Premium and SEND funding should be increased.
  • Valuing the creative subjects.
  • In-person learning should be supported with digital technology.
  • Greater engagement with parents/carers.
  • Additional or extended hours must not come at the expense of staff workload and must be either paid or avoided.

In order to keep hold of our support staff, members recommended:

  • Increased PPA time for all school staff and added flexibility, including the ability to take it at home.
  • Valuing support staff through pay, conditions and career development.
  • Regular personal development time for staff and a personal training allowance.
  • Increased numbers of health and safety reps with added rights and protections.
  • Protection for staff raising health and safety concerns.
  • A reduction in workload, especially relating to data.

Specifically in the early years sector, members recommended:

  • A fair wage for every worker.
  • The “free entitlement” to be fixed so it is truly free and works for both early years settings and parents.
  • Career development for early years workers.
  • A focus on social skills and mental wellbeing; a return to learning through play.

The aftermath of the pandemic represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to change early years and primary education – what we learn, how we learn it and how we assess it – and ensure it meets the needs of children, parents and the economy.

This opportunity must be about long-term recovery, not short-term “catch-up”.

Sadly, the government is in danger of losing that generational chance, with its penny-pinching, piecemeal announcements (Headteacher Update, 2021), rather than the detailed, comprehensive, ambitious – and necessarily expensive – recovery plan that is needed. The Treasury appears oblivious to the need to invest in education and the early years in particular as agents of economic recovery.

There is no quick-fix solution for politicians to make headlines with. No longer can the early years be treated as an undervalued, underpaid after-thought. We know that the first five years of a child’s development is crucial to their future and our economy, so the government needs to put in more to reap the benefits in the future.

No longer should learners be forced to meet the needs of the system – the system must now meet the needs of our learners.

No longer should early years practitioners be underpaid and undervalued – they should receive appropriate pay for the incredible work they do.

And no longer should the early years sector scrape by on the funding that is provided. Appropriate funding should be received so that they can implement the measures necessary for the long-term recovery.

  • Deborah Lawson is assistant general secretary of Community Union (Voice education section).

Further information & resources

  • DfE: Guidance: Changes to the early years foundation stage (EYFS) framework, last updated April 2021:
  • Headteacher Update: Education Recovery Plan: Tsar’s resignation rounds off nightmare day for DfE, June 2021:
  • Voice Community: The Future of Education, June 2021:

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