Is there internal conflict within the Early Years Sector (EYS) and does it contribute to a growing crisis situation?
Do we have dirty laundry in the EYS?
It is my opinion that as a sector, there is a need to address internal conflict before we can ever hope to execute the kind of change the sector desperately needs. If nothing else, our EYS in the UK is diverse! It consists of an array of maintained and PVI settings offering a range of services for young children including childcare, education, health, family support and early intervention. There is not one immutable concept for Early Childhood Services and it is clear that a nice, neat definition will oversimplify the intricacies of the operational context of the EYS.
Despite the complexity of the EYS in the UK, the implications are that the two strands; the maintained sector and the PVI sector, are seen as equal by the DfE as they both deliver the same entitlement. However, Miller and Cable (2010) point out that professionally the EYS “has different starting points and has followed different paths. Individuals are also on a continuum of professional development and will vary at any point in time in relation to their professional knowledge, understanding and skills, the range and variety of spaces they are working in, the cultural, geographical and policy context of their work, working relationships and pedagogical practices.” The fact is, there a “schism between the maintained sector, where care is teacher-led, staff are paid with a public sector pay framework and work within their school’s professional framework, and the private and voluntary sector, where a minority of settings are led by a qualified graduate” Butler and Rutter (2016).
Do we even know what feeds this conflict?
The main cause of the conflict is pervasive dualism within the sector. The EYS in the UK is confusing! Nutbrown (2012) describes a lack of coherence surrounding a number of issues; qualifications, status, professional development and professionalism in the EYS. This lack of coherence translates into dualism in which the concept of ‘equal but different’ plagues the sector. There are two ways to look at this, we could say that the two strands of the sector are of equal value but operate differently which is perfectly true but what we have instead is a situation where vastly different contexts are being promoted as equal whilst not being valued as equal. We now have a confusing matrix of ‘professional’ roles some of which are promoted as having ‘parity’ but carry different contractual terms and conditions and different salaries. Early Years Professional Status (EYPS) is a prime example; when it was introduced it “was marketed as being equivalent to Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) but not matched by equivalent pay and the qualification was not widely recognised” Faulkner and Coates (2013).
The situation remains the same with Early Years Teacher Status (EYTS). It does indeed seem nonsensical for the government to create a dichotomous situation of ‘parity’ under these circumstances and not foresee that it may be a source of contention between the teachers who have achieved their QTS, and the ‘teachers’ who will be given ‘parity’ with QTS.
The issue of qualifications is also of a wider concern. A large percentage of staff in the PVI sector are qualified to at least level 3 whereas school-based early years staff are more likely to be qualified to degree level than those in other settings. This of itself does not mean that degree level staff are automatically better at their jobs but against this backdrop it seems counter-intuitive to have the same expectations from the delivery of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum.
Despite the fact the Maintained Sector and the PVI sector are ‘delivering the same entitlement’, it does appear that whilst not explicit, the goalposts are set differently as Butler and Rutter (2016) explain that “private and voluntary providers are subject to less stringent quality requirements than maintained settings.” Another aspect of dualism within the sector is the Common Inspection Framework. Superficially, it would appear that the entire EYS is inspected under one framework and this only serves to further complicate a divided sector that is operating from different starting points. Deeper reading highlights the different legislative frameworks that inspectors have to adhere to with regard to Ofsted inspections of the early years; a shallow understanding of this process is a source of further controversy within the sector.
Why is this division so prevalent?
Marshall (1995) states “We cannot restructure a structure that is splintered at its roots”. The EYS is designed on divergent principles; a market model to respond to diversity, and a universal model which is designed for uniformity, therefore the very basis of the sector design is built on opposing concepts. This, essentially, constitutes a weak foundation. Continuing to add weight to an EYS that is built on a weak foundation and is without the benefit of a planning strategy, is actually tantamount to ignoring the inevitability of the collapse of the structure and continuously ‘hoping against hope’ that it continues to tick over for just a little while longer. EYS reform under these circumstances is essentially complex and multi-directional which also helps to keep the sector divided.
Is political correctness a contributing factor to internal conflict within the EYS?
The underlying tension regarding dualism seems to be grounded in political correctness. Howard (2008) explains that political correctness has the unfortunate perspective of a very narrow view, and of utilising a narrowness of language that projects “a shared commitment to the existence of a universal truth, rather than particular ones.” The EYS in the UK is immense and complex, yet the narrowness of perspective on the sector’s operational heritages is reminiscent of “shining a small torch onto a vast object and expecting to comprehend its size, scope and intricacy from a moment’s glance” Howard (2008). The concepts of ‘parity’ and the generalisations attributed to the EYS workforce carry the essence of promoting the ‘underdog’ or instinctively championing “the rights of the victims of authority”, despite not being clear who the victim is or who has been vested with authority. This misleading notion is responsible for accusatory finger-pointing from both strands of the sector.
Facts are frequently distorted by ‘political correctness’ and this appears to have cultivated a pervasive culture of seething resentment within the EYS. The sector is rife with carefully balanced sentiments like ‘everybody is a teacher in the Early Years’. These kinds of well-intentioned but misguided statements foster a deep sense of not being able to be truthful about the professional roles within the sector, for fear of causing offence to those who are less qualified. This is clearly a socially constructed situation that has taken root. There is a persistent narrow view point of the expertise needed within the sector, and a resistance to widening the vocabulary used to describe the operational context of the EYS. Resentment is ever present in the sector for example when the term ‘outstanding’ is seen as a classification of equal measure, despite a difference in legislation, inspection regimes and expectations. This has cultivated a form of professional toxicity within the sector.
The EYS is crying out for clarity and definition. A comprehensive search did not produce any literature that compares EYS leadership in nursery schools to EYS leadership in primary schools or between maintained schools and PVI settings which would be useful for a deeper and less politically-correct understanding of the sector. Inner conflict is also present in the maintained sector where primary schools and nursery schools disagree on a number of issues and also in the PVI sector where there are varied viewpoints, variable work remits, fee structures and pay conditions. Macroeconomic policy frameworks have continued to set the maintained sector against the PVI sector to compete for the same set of limited and dwindling resources. This has left the EYS with confused priorities, disjointed and befuddling policy initiatives, and fragmented funding, which has increasingly become more difficult to piece together at a microeconomic level. Duality will continue to thrive in a culture of political correctness and this will continue to consistently undermine the rigour and professionalism of the sector. The EYS is suffering from a promotion of “universal values”, to the detriment of the “particular values” that we need to define and clarify the vision and the purpose of the sector. Continued governmental commitment to a divided system is arguably one of the main ingredients of the current internal conflict situation in the EYS.
What can we do as a sector? Or as Friere puts it “How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation?”
EYS practitioners are frustrated at trying to navigate a confusing and sometimes conflicting system while competing with each other. Friere (1996) speaks of “characteristics of oppressive cultural action” which is indeed attributable to the current state of the EYS. Freire’s concept of “divide and rule” clarifies government bureaucracy, which can deliberately or inadvertently serve to isolate, create and deepen rifts, even while appearing to help and support. Currently the PVI sector and the Maintained Sector are deeply submerged in a “focalised view” of their aspect of the EYS, rather than seeing the sector as a “dimension of a totality” which in turn hinders our collective ability to critically perceive the reality of the entire EYS. This lack of consciousness of ‘totality’ further drives the already present divisiveness that exists in the sector. So, as a sector we need to get together to:
- Recognise and tackle popular fallacies within the sector. This will be a challenge as we will be attempting to shift ‘distorted viewpoints’ that are deeply embedded in the culture of the EYS.
- Understand ‘our shared, cultural situation’ which we can use to “enable and empower us in unanticipated ways” Butler (1988). Define the position of leadership in the EYS and reconcile the importance of strong and role-relevant leadership/management in regard to the overall EYS purpose.Acknowledge ‘care’ as an integral aspect of a child’s learning experience.
It would appear that should ‘care’ be given due consideration and its own professional status, it would help to define reciprocity between the concepts of ‘care’ and ‘education’. Stir the submerged consciousness of EYS leaders by acquiring a “critical awareness” of our current circumstances if we are ever going to successfully agitate for the transformation that the sector needs.
There is a sense of helplessness exuding from EYS leaders when attempting to manage the ‘organised disorder’ which is being imposed on the sector at such speed that there is little time to think, process and plan, resulting in the crisis state of constantly reacting to the stimulus of change. Leaders in both contexts of the EYS are passionate about their roles, but they are currently focused on isolated aspects of the sector and they are ‘battle-worn’ from managing the turbulence that is present in the current EYS. Transformation from the ‘inside-out’ is currently compromised, as practitioners across the sector are so submerged in the government’s conceptualisations of the EYS that they are predisposed to the persistent and acrimonious internal conflict that is evident in the sector. This could be a worrying ‘stalemated’ position for the current EYS. Marshall (1995) has some wise words about transformation “adding wings to caterpillars does not create butterflies”; The EYS is suffering from political efforts to effect change but avoid transformation, which have resulted in the sector being “awkward and dysfunctional”. It would seem feasible, that EYS practitioners, professionals and stakeholders need to work together to both effect change and lobby for strategic input on the part of policy makers, and also advocate for a period of rest for the sector to allow for transformation. The EYS needs to be defined and clarified for purpose to help de-escalate the internal conflicts that are currently present in the sector. The toxicity of internal conflicts is symptomatic of a sector that is in crisis.
Let’s do something about it!!