This blog post is written by Prof. Helen Bilton (Professor of Outdoor Learning), a research expert in early years education. In this blog post, Prof. Bilton reflected on a symposium which she recently convened at the Institute of Education, University of Reading.

Early childhood education is in crisis. The proportion of totally unqualified staff working in nurseries has increased to over a quarter of current practitioners. Fewer and fewer nurseries are employing graduates. The number of Level 3 staff working in nurseries dropped from 83% to 52% in three years. Those wishing to become or work with young children is falling. Nursery staff in poverty and visiting food banks can be advising parents in poverty and visiting food banks.

On Friday 1 November 2019, a number of experts came together at the University of Reading to discuss this topic; what is happening and why it matters and then deciding on a way forward. There were people from all areas of the early years workforce and all areas of the country, including Higher Education, Further Education, schools, and students. Professor Cathy Nutbrown (Professor of Education, University of Sheffield) acted as our chair.

The event was consciously designed as a symposium, which is a meeting organised so experts can discuss a particular academic topic. Those attendees were there to work and come to some sort of consensus.  We adopted the Delphi technique, which has been described as a “method for structuring a group communication process so that the process is effective in allowing of group of individuals as a whole, to deal with a complex problem” (Linstone & Turoff, 1975, p. 3). The technique is iterative and aims to get a broad range of opinions, importantly allowing everyone to contribute many ideas for others to discuss and reflect upon.

We ended with some key messages. Key among these were that we need a cultural shift as to how we view children. Society needs to see childhood as a continuous process and everyone needs to value the child and childhood and not see them or it as something to get through to achieve adulthood. It is so much more. Children should be seen and heard. Valuing the child means staff will be valued. We decided we need a proper long-term plan for our future, that is for our children and their education. It was even suggested we need some form of professional body similar to the law or medicine which can represent our views. A lovely quote from Tricia David summarised our thinking, we need “strong, capable, confident and self-assured” children and therefore we need “strong, capable, confident and self-assured” staff working with those children.

Our next steps are to write a briefing paper and to start a hard-hitting social media campaign, as enough is enough.