The DFE announced recently that GCSE passes at grade C in Maths and English will be an entry requirement for Early Years Educator courses funded by the Skills Funding Agency from August 2014. ‘Publicly funded’ for this purpose (but not for VAT exemption) includes 24+ learning loans. The DFE cannot require awarding organisations to attach entry requirements to their qualifications, and so the policy does not extend to self-funded learners. However, the EYFS has been amended so that anyone achieving a new EYE qualifications will have to have achieved the relevant GCSEs before they can be counted in the ratios at Level 3. Those who hold, or are studying towards, existing Level 3 qualifications will not be affected.
A full discussion of the merits of this policy needs to address three questions:
• Will raising the level of English and maths skills in early years staff be effective in improving outcomes for children?
• Should any new qualification requirements apply to ‘entry’ or ‘exit’?
• What is the best timetable for change, balancing the interests of children, parents, settings and staff?
Will raising the level of English and maths skills in early years staff be effective in improving outcomes for children?
I am sceptical about claims that there is evidence for a causal link between the level of English and maths skills in early years staff and children’s outcomes or educational performance. Those who claim this generally cite long range studies such as the EPPE Project, or wide ranging literature reviews such as that produced for the evaluation of the Graduate Leader Fund.
These studies certainly provide powerful evidence of a correlation between the educational qualifications of staff and the later performance of children. However they use a variety of different measures for educational qualifications such as graduate status, and do not attempt to isolate maths and English qualifications as specific factors.
Furthermore, the existence of a correlation does not demonstrate a causal link, nor do any of the studies claim this. The level of bird song is a good predictor of the arrival of dawn: but, while the ancients may have deduced from this that the birds were summoning the sun, we now appreciate that the causation is the other way round. The reason we know this is that science treated the correlation as something needing explanation and further research, not as an explanation in itself.
The evidence does not necessarily show that higher educational qualifications cause better outcomes. It is equally consistent with the explanation that settings delivering high quality care are more likely to attract and retain highly qualified staff than those where the quality of care is lower.
There is, of course, another argument to be made from ‘common sense’. This is reflected in statements like the one recently made by an NCTL official responding to a comment on the new proposals:
“Parents trust nurseries to help their children learn to speak and add up in the crucial early stages of their development. Yet early years qualifications do not presently require learners to have mastered basic literacy and numeracy. “
Quite apart from the inaccurate, and rather insulting, reference to the content and assessment of early years qualifications, the reasoning is entirely spurious. It is easy to see that basic literacy skills will be an asset in helping even very young children to read, or basic numeracy skills in helping them to count, sort and use simple concepts of scale and proportion. It is less obvious that a familiarity with 19th century literature or the ability to solve quadratic equations, however life-enhancing these skills may be, will translate directly into raising educational standards in the under fives.
Should any new qualification requirements apply to ‘entry’ or ‘exit’?
Even if the government is right in insisting on academic GCSES instead of ‘contextualised’ functional skills, it is not obvious why it has decided to make maths and English an entry requirement for a publicly funded course rather than simply something to be achieved by the end, as is the case with apprenticeships in every other sector. If the aim of the policy is to ensure that all those counting in the ratios at level 3 hold an appropriate qualification, this has already been achieved through the recent changes to the EYFS.
Cathy Nutbrown argued that studying maths and English in parallel would be a distraction. “It is my opinion”, she wrote, “that someone studying towards their early education and childcare level 3 should be able to dedicate their time to that subject, and will be less able to succeed in it if they are distracted by attempting to catch up on other skills. Students need to be able to read professional literature, make observations, write notes and complete written assessments, as well as read and tell stories, and hold extended conversations with children. If they cannot do these things, then they are not yet ready for the course, or for working with babies and young children.”
This argument contains two distinct flaws. First, it assumes that someone without the relevant GCSE qualifications “cannot do these things” whereas we all know learners who, without formal educational qualifications, have done all these things and more while working as highly effective practitioners.
Secondly, Nutbrown’s list of the things students need to do is highly selective. Try this as an alternative: the competences are extracted word for word from the DFE’s Subject Content guides for the new GCSES:
Students need to be able to evaluate high quality, challenging texts from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, use linguistic and literary terminology, simplify surd expressions, factorise and solve quadratic equations, know and apply the sine rule and use vectors to construct geometric arguments and proofs. If they cannot do these things, then they are not yet ready for the course, or for working with babies and young children.
Ultimately, whether maths and English qualifications should be entry or exit requirements depends on why they are requirements in the first place. If, as the government asserts, this is about ensuring that practitioners can help children to “speak and add up”, then there would seem no reason why an exit requirement will not suffice. If, on the other hand, it is based on Cathy Nutbrown’s belief that practitioners will be unable to complete their level 3 studies without first having passed GCSE maths and English, it flies in the face of all the expertise of training providers in assessing potential learners and their experience of the benefits of embedding functional maths and English into vocational training rather than treating them as unrelated academic subjects.
I suspect that the real reason is neither of these, but simply a vague belief that if staff are required to study and pass exams in English and maths, the literacy and numeracy skills of the very young children for whom they are responsible will improve by some form of osmosis.
What is the best timetable for change, balancing the interests of children, parents, settings and staff?
There are many reasons why an abrupt change to GCSEs is the wrong thing to do at this moment.
• GCSEs themselves are in the course of being revised, with a new, more challenging specification due to be introduced in 2015 for examinations in 2017.
• Employers and training providers delivering apprenticeships have just completed a major transition from key skills to functional skills. A further change now, followed by another in the run up to 2017, is unnecessary and will be disruptive.
• Learners training with work based providers, whose are typically apprentices who can start their training at any time, will be disadvantaged by the sudden imposition of a GCSE requirement which can only be tested at fixed times twice a year (June and November). Functional skills are tested on demand.
• Learners training in colleges, especially those now completing level 2 qualifications in preparation for a start on level 3 programmes in September, will be disadvantaged by this change as there will be no opportunity for them to achieve the relevant GCSEs in time.
• It seems that the government only believes in “employer ownership” when the employers agree with it. This change comes just as employers across the economy are being given the freedom to develop new relevant apprenticeship standards. The government’s own guidance allows Functional Skills within apprenticeships and simply states an “ambition that in the longer term, once the reformed GCSEs are implemented, apprentices will use GCSEs rather than Functional Skills.” Only in early years has “in the longer term” been replaced with “now”.
• There is a lack of parity between 16-19 year old learners funded by EFA, which has announced that it will allow GCSE maths and English to be taken in parallel with level 3 EYE qualifications, and apprentices funded by the SFA or by 24+ loans, who must obtain these qualifications before starting. This is both unfair to learners and a distortion of the market.
• The policy raises significant questions relating both to the Equality Act 2000 (potential discrimination against actual and potential early years staff who have English as an additional language or who may have a communication disorder) and to EU law on equivalences and mutual recognition of qualifications.
We urge the government to retain functional skills as an acceptable alternative to GCSEs until the new GCSEs are available for examination in 2017, and to allow open access to apprenticeships for all those of ability, regardless of formal qualifications.