The invisible factors that go into quality childcare
By Claire Harding
13 February 2017
There is much debate about how to define and improve quality in childcare settings: in practice, we often rely on simple measures of quality such as staff qualifications or Ofsted ratings. But new research published today suggests that settings which employ a graduate-level staff member or have a high Ofsted inspection rating are not boosting children’s development more than other settings.
This is a tricky finding for people who work in the childcare sector. Previous studies have found that childcare settings that have a staff member with graduate qualification tend to provide childcare that is higher in quality overall. These studies then went on to find that children who attend higher quality childcare settings tend to achieve better outcomes in school. Today’s new study from academics at the University of Surrey and UCL does not say that adding graduates to the workforce can’t improve quality, but it does seem to show that just employing a graduate isn’t enough by itself.
One of the great challenges for research about education is that it’s difficult to single out and account for all the variables influencing a process or result. If we want to observe whether more outdoor play leads to better focus during reading time, we can’t ask a group of nurseries to make their children play outdoors more often or ask another group of nurseries to not let their children play outside for a few weeks or months. We usually have to rely on studying the differences that happened ‘naturally’ between groups without researchers’ intervention. So we have to find a group of nurseries that provided more outdoor play activities and a group of nurseries that didn’t. The difficulty here is that there might be a number of ‘invisible’ yet influential variables that are associated with nurseries that provide more outdoor play. For example, nurseries that are able to provide more outdoor play are often more likely to be situated outside of cities.
The study published today employs a rather elegant solution: it looks at children who were in the same class in infant school but who went to different childcare settings, and compares how they did in their Early Years Foundation Stage Profile assessment at age five. Whereas some studies looking at the outcomes of childcare settings have to account for the fact that the children go to different schools after childcare, this approach allows the researchers to assess the outcomes of different childcares settings on a child’s performance in school while removing the impact of being at a different school or having a different teacher, which would otherwise be pretty significant.
The researchers found that the outcomes that children that went to one setting got were very different to the outcomes of children that went to another setting – even after the characteristics of the children who attended were taken into account.
The information available for this study is fairly basic. It was based on big existing national databases – for providers they just had Ofsted grades, they could see whether the setting was maintained or private, and whether there was a graduate on the team. This means that there might be some important variables about the children, like the level of education their parents have, which are ‘invisible’ in this study.
Parents don’t choose childcare at random, but we probably can’t see some of the important factors which influence their choice. Some of the differences the study finds in children’s outcomes which appear to be due to the quality of childcare settings might actually be due to the families who use the settings. The researchers acknowledge this – it’s a common problem for studies which rely on an existing administrative datasets rather than recruiting a group specifically for their research.
Other studies, such as SEED or EPPE, looking into the impact of quality in childcare have looked at both families and providers in much more detail, but they tend to have smaller datasets. These studies visited settings in person to observe the environment and – particularly important – the ways that staff interact with children. They found that there can be a lot of differences between childcare settings which look quite similar on paper, so we probably shouldn’t be too surprised to see that the childcare settings involved in today’s study are not all producing the same outcomes despite looking the same on national databases.
Graduates in the maintained sector (childcare provided by local authority and school nurseries) tend to gain their Qualified Teacher Status through traditional academic routes. Career progression for this group has a lot in common with what’s on offer for primary school teachers. In the private and voluntary childcare sector, it’s common for people to gain their graduate qualification by training for their Early Years Teacher (EYT) status (formerly Early Years Professional status) while working.
It seems fair to assume that people who choose to study in this way are highly motivated and probably therefore good at their jobs – before, during and after their studies. The moment that the setting ‘employs a graduate’ might be when the person they already employ passes their EYT qualification. There’s also likely to be a lot of variation between graduates in terms of their skills, knowledge and experience. In wider society, the ‘graduate effect’ on employment and earnings has reduced as there are more graduates in the workforce and therefore a wider divergence of skills and experiences between them. It’s possible that there has been a similar effect in the childcare sector as policy changes have increased both the overall quality and the number of graduates in the sector.
High quality childcare is important for all children, and especially for those who face the most disadvantage. We should be concerned that there’s so much variation between settings, even as we are cautious about hidden variables. Simply employing a graduate won’t remove this variation on its own, but we must continue to work towards a better qualified and a better rewarded childcare workforce with meaningful career progression and a focus on reducing staff turnover. If we want the best for our youngest children, we must properly support the people working with them every day.
Reference: ‘Quality in Early Years Settings and Children’s School Achievement’ is published as Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) Discussion Paper No. 1468. The work was completed by Dr Jo Blanden (School of Economics, University of Surrey and CEP), Dr Kirstine Hansen (Department of Social Science, University College London) and Professor Sandra McNally (School of Economics, University of Surrey and CEP). The work was funded by the Nuffield Foundation.
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