In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Early Years Professionalism and Professionalization Policies in England

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Leadership and Management as Markers of Professional Practice

Education Early Years Professionalism and Professionalization Policies in England
Joy Chalke, Catherine Carroll-Meehan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756810-0192


The quality of provision in early childhood education and care (ECEC) is directly linked to the discussion of professionalism in the workforce and is a topic for debate not only in England but also internationally. It is explored particularly in the Westernized nations of the world and is commented upon by international organizations such as Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The debate often revolves around what makes an early years professional, what professionalism means for ECEC, and who is constructing the professional practitioner. Each country has its own early years culture, history, and policy perspectives that have influenced the arguments, developments, and current shape of the workforce, and therefore are worthy of looking at in individual contexts as well as exploring the wider debate. English government policy since the late 20th century has regularly situated the workforce as one in need of professionalizing, an approach that fails to recognize the rich resources of experience and practice that exist in many areas of ECEC. This discourse is also reflective of the problems of low status and wages endemic across the sector that work against identifying ECEC as a professional career path. England’s approach to professionalization in this period has forefronted a “technicist” construction of a professional that has equated the acquisition of a certain set of skills, often linked to a qualification, to a demonstration of professionalism. It can be thought of as a way of “performing” professional practice that can be judged by meeting an external set of standards. Each step in the process of change of statutory requirements and new directions of travel has happened rapidly with little opportunity to be embedded and be evaluated before a new change has been promoted. The early years workforce have therefore had to become extremely resilient in the process, which to date, has not effectively resolved the issues of who, or what, determines the wider understanding of early years professionalism. Throughout these changes, the underlying technicist debate has been contested and challenged, in relation to levels of qualification and also the skills, knowledge, and dispositions those qualifications can effectively assess. The academic community has challenged the policy rhetoric arguing for different ways of thinking about professional identity and suggesting that the workforce itself needs to be much more effectively involved in the process.

General Overviews

Policy discourses reflect the underlying drivers that have influenced the move toward professionalization of the sector—these are not straightforward or linear but influenced by a number of competing factors. Moss 2014 considers the period from 1997 to 2013, and Faulkner and Coates 2014 cover 1990 to 2013. Osgood 2012 focuses on early years workforce reform within the broadest context of early childhood education and care (ECEC) policy developments in England. Both the Nutbrown Review into workforce qualifications (see Nutbrown 2012) and the response by Truss (Truss 2013, More Great Childcare) continue to articulate the policy discourses following a change of government. Wild, et al. 2015 provides a helpful discourse analysis of these last two policy documents. Cooke and Lawton 2008 and Parker 2013 explore the policy directions and highlight one of the main policy aspirations of closing the gap for children with a disadvantaged background through high-quality childcare and early intervention. Cooke and Lawton 2008 and the Daycare Trust 2008 specifically look at the challenges for the workforce of these policy initiatives, highlighting the issues of low pay and status.

  • Cooke, G., and K. Lawton. 2008. For love or money: Pay, progression and professionalization in the early years workforce. London: Institute for Public Policy Research.

    A valuable review that explores issues in developing the early years workforce within the context of the marketization of ECEC. It concluded there were three main problems to moving the sector forward: low pay, the ongoing low base level of qualifications for many practitioners, and finally that government policy on professionalization was impeding attempts to improve quality of workforce. It made five recommendations around levels of qualifications, enhancing career progression, and an institutional framework of agreeing wages.

  • Daycare Trust. 2008. Raising the bar: What next for the early childhood education and care workforce? London: Daycare Trust.

    This briefing paper was funded by the unions and commissioned by the Daycare Trust, a national UK childcare charity. It was written in the context of the government’s investment into ECEC following the National Childcare Strategy. It provides a picture of the workforce at the time of writing that indicates some of the ongoing dilemmas in relation to pay, conditions, and the requirements of qualifications without real incentives.

  • Faulkner, D., and E. Coates. 2014. Early childcare policy and practice in England: Twenty years of change. International Journal of Early Years Education 21.2–3: 244–263.

    This article explores policy changes in a chronological account starting from 1990 and includes the influence of key research projects on changing focus to the organization of ECEC, starting with the problem of social inequality and government policy to meet the challenges. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Moss, P. 2014. Early childhood policy in England 1997–2013: Anatomy of a missed opportunity. International Journal of Early Years education 22.4: 346–358.

    DOI: 10.1080/09669760.2014.968533

    This article provides a review of policy during the key period when ECEC first became a policy priority. It looks at three areas of governance and finance, the organization and management of services, and the workforce. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Nutbrown, C. 2012. Foundations for quality: Review of the early education and childcare qualifications. Darlington, UK: Department for Education.

    This report looked at the qualifications in the ECEC sector and made a number of key recommendations to develop career pathways and establish pedagogical leadership in the sector. It gives a useful insight into the different qualifications at the time of the study.

  • Osgood, J. 2012. Narratives from the nursery: Negotiating professional identities in early childhood. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

    This book provides an accessible and contextual overview of some of the issues of professionalization by drawing together some of the key debates around the ECEC workforce in England. It utilizes a research study to explore policy context and to challenge the way in which constructions of professional identity are being articulated.

  • Parker, I. 2013. Early developments: Bridging the gap between evidence and policy in early years education. London: Institute for public policy research.

    This report investigates the issues around the development of quality in early years and was written shortly after the announcement of the awards of Early Years Educator and Early Years Teacher qualifications. It highlights some of the problems for quality improvement, such as the cost involved—for both the government and parents—but also the different viewpoints on what makes a quality provision for the different age ranges.

  • Truss, E. 2013. More great childcare: Raising quality and giving parents more choice. London: Department for Education.

    This policy document was billed as a response to the Nutbrown Review. It set out to tackle issues in the ECEC sector such as staff/child ratios, pay and flexibility of provision for parents as well as improving the regulatory regime. The key recommendations are around younger children in school with a graduate-led ratio of 1:13. It also recommended and a new Level 3 qualification: Early Years Educator.

  • Wild, M., C. Silberfield, and B. Nightingale. 2015. More? Great? Childcare? A discourse analysis of two recent social policy documents relating to the care and education of young children in England. International Journal of Early Years Education 23.3: 230–244.

    DOI: 10.1080/09669760.2015.1079167

    This article applies critical discourse analysis to two policy documents related to quality provision in ECEC to explore how the same use of words can have different meanings. One section focuses specifically on the role of qualifications in improving quality. It provides scholarly insights for academics rather than an introduction to the topic. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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