Over the last 2 weeks the decision by the Labour led Brighton & Hove City Council to reduce the pay of early years educators in their Council run Nurseries has been the subject of several twitter debates, that I have been part of. The Councillor who has responsibility for this policy, Tom Bewick has to his credit, responded to some of the tweets (the leader of the Council has a tendency to block people who ask difficult questions too often). However twitter is not a good place to stretch out the nuances or details of such issues. My own position is very clear, I have written about this issue many times in my blog that we pay our early years educators derisory rates of pay and this is a disgrace, they are often ignored or dismissed by other professionals in the care of such children when it comes to making decisions on matters such as safeguarding and it is vital that we end treating early years educators as the cinderella of our educational system. Every bit of research I have heard or read argues for investing at this level so that we give our children the best possible start in life as far as their education is concerned.
Education of children over the ages of ‘early years’ is dominated (or has been) by the state sector who have set the pay and conditions for the workers that educate our children, based on a mixture of negotiation and analysis of the work involved. The Schools run by the private sector or charitable sector tend to offer a similar level of pay for their teachers in order to ensure that they can recruit staff in a competitive market.
However early years settings began as voluntary run creches, long before any Schools had nurseries, or any Councils ran childrens centres. Often these settings did not pay their volunteer workers at all. As the importance of this part of our educational system began to be understood, demands in terms of the activities, paperwork and staff qualifications lifted up the sector to be seen on many levels as a vital if cinderella part of the education mainstream, operating on a comparable basis to school teaching. The vast majority of early years settings remain as private sector or voluntary sector organisations. As a result of this history we still have many settings where the workers, educating our most vulnerable children (due to their age) are paid the national living wage or just above it. These pay rates are set based on history, and what the market can get away with, rather than any form of analysis of what is expected of such workers and their professionalism.
In the case of publicly run Nurseries, many are set up as part of Schools which mean that the pay rates are often based on scales similar to those used for teachers of other age groups. Many others are part of Childrens Centres and one presumes that they have also created a widely understood rate of pay for this work. In both cases these pay rates are often at a similar rate of pay as set for school teachers which is entirely understandable given the nature of the work that these people do. It is my view that Councils should be acting to raise the conditions for the whole sector (it is after all public money, that primarily pays for a great deal of this education) and that we lose the idea of this sector being seen as a way of parking children for a few hours, paying less than the cost of some car parking charges.
Over several discussions with Councillor Tom Bewick he has referred to the need to reduce the costs for these nurseries on the basis of efficiency. When I have pressed him to explain what he means by inefficiency, he has acted defensively to argue that I am simply trying to argue against reducing pay rates. However on Sunday he wrote:
“Can u point to a Vol sector nursery that is running the same staffing structure as the city council?”
I responded by asking him where the information about the Council staffing structure was held and so far he has not responded. This is the first time he has been willing to open up his idea on the basis of some real data, yet here we are 3 days later and still no information on which to do a comparison. It is certainly true that the voluntary sector often runs a very tight ship, and Councils could certainly learn from this in some cases. However if by efficiency Tom Bewick is simply arguing for paying staff less than they do currently, my view is why not start by looking at what these people do each day. If we are going to experiment with cut price services, our children are not in my opinion the right place to start. If these children are our future, we need to give them and ourselves the best start we can.