There’s no doubt that the Government’s announcement of a U-turn on its requirement for newly recruited nursery staff to hold at least a C grade in GCSE English and Mathematics (first introduced in 2014) is very welcome news. From this coming April, equivalent functional skills qualifications will also be accepted.

The requirement for staff counting towards a nursery’s qualified staff to children ratio to hold GCSE qualifications has undoubtedly contributed to recruitment problems in the nurseries sector. Although nurseries were still allowed to employ those who did not meet these minimum requirements, they did not count towards the ratios. This has resulted in nurseries struggling to recruit staff and talented young people being put off joining the profession.

Cynics may say the U-turn has come just in time to facilitate the rolling out of the Government’s scheme to provide 30 hours of free childcare for working families, which comes into force in September. However, the relaxation of this rule will undoubtedly have some benefits for all concerned.

Nurseries will now be able to select staff based on their aptitude for working with young children, rather than their academic abilities, while still meeting their minimum staffing ratios.

Those interested wishing to qualify as an early years’ teacher, thereby assuming greater responsibility for planning provision, will still need to meet the requirements for good GCSEs in English, maths and science. However, those not wishing to progress to qualified teacher status will be able to continue working in the early years’ environment while accessing appropriate alternative on-the-job training.

It will be interesting to see over the coming months whether this change of heart merely reflects expediency on the part of a government trying to ensure that its new policy doesn’t fall flat on its face, or a more widespread shift in attitudes towards functional skills.

For too long, we have revered academic qualifications while diminishing the value of so-called equivalent practical or vocational qualifications. Such a mind-set drastically increases pressure on our teenagers to perform in public examinations, while devaluing more practical achievements. This attitude also has to be held at least partly responsible for the current situation in our society which sees rising numbers of graduates struggling with record levels of student debt and record levels of graduate unemployment.

If we want to stand any chance of countering this, we need to promote alternative routes into careers that take a pragmatic view of what new recruits actually need to know in order to be effective in a given role. We need to ensure greater flexibility in terms of relevant on-the-job training and place greater value on the actual skills and aptitudes employees possess rather than on academic qualifications that are usually several steps removed from the practicalities of doing a job.

Moreover, if a functional skills qualification is nominally deemed to be the equivalent of a GCSE, we need to take this seriously by ensuring that it allows access to the same opportunities as the GCSE. The last thing we need is a system that pays lip-service to the equivalence of functional skills qualifications and GCSEs simply to fill posts left vacant by a recruitment crisis yet continues to promote a two-tier system by restricting opportunities or pay for those without the GCSE.

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