John Davis: Inequality and poverty pay in early years sector is a national disgrace

Professor John Davis, writes on the news that pay rates continue to be unfair for professionals in the private and voluntary sectors in Scotland.  John developed the BA Childhood Practice at Edinburgh University and has carried out research into qualifications, multi-professional working, anti-discriminatory practice and transition in early years services.  In January 2016 John and colleagues collaborated with the Common Weal to produce a policy lab on early years with a range of professionals and a report entitled ‘An Equal Start’ which set out a plan for addressing gaps in pay in the early learning and care sector.

A SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT report published on Friday and entitled ‘Financial review of early learning and childcare in Scotland: the current landscape’ drew attention to the scale of poverty wages in the early learning and care sector.

Friday’s report was in-depth but two new pieces of information most caught my eye.  The first was that only a 3rd of eligible two year olds had gained access to funded places in early learning provision (it appears local authorities have enormous room for improvement here). The second important findings was on pay. The report estimated that “around 80 per cent of practitioners and 50 per cent of supervisors in partner settings [private and voluntary sector] are paid less than the Living Wage (£8.25 an hour).”

This government report managed successfully to put concrete figures on the huge disparity between the private and public sector.  The Scottish Government should be congratulated for exposing this issue in such a clear and measured way.  The report confirms the findings of a report I and others produced for Common Weal in January, as it states:

“The average annual full-time salary cost of managers is estimated at around £58,000 for managers in a local authority setting and £23,000 in a partner provider setting. Average salary costs for practitioners in local authority settings is estimated at £28,000 and £15,000 (£17,000 for senior practitioners) in partner provider settings…. … On average, for an early years practitioner, the public sector spends two thirds more than the voluntary and 80 per cent more than the private sector on staff-related costs (wages, pensions etc.).”

The report indicates that somewhere between 10000 and 13000 early learning and care professionals experience inequality of wages.

“The question that stuck in my mind watching the debate in the Scottish Parliament on the report yesterday was, why weren’t more members of the Scottish Parliament focussing on the issue of poverty wages?”

The question that stuck in my mind watching the debate in the Scottish Parliament on the report yesterday was, why weren’t more members of the Scottish Parliament focussing on the issue of poverty wages? The professionals in this sector are mainly working class women.  Why, when both settings are funded by local authorities, should working class women in the private sector earn less for doing the same job as their public sector counterparts?

The Tories mainly glossed over the poverty wages issue and took a trip back into their policies of the 1980s and 1990s by promoting a voucher scheme approach to early learning and care.

A Green MSP, whilst mentioning the need to address pay equity, complained about a reduction in the number of children accessing teachers in early years settings.  This complaint ignores the fact that every childcare setting now has a manger with a degree (or is training for a degree) and the sector now has more than 2000 degree level Childhood Practitioners (compared to 2005 figures) with specifically tailored early learning qualifications.  

Early years workers, who have been campaigning for equal pay for over 10 years, get very hacked off when politicians put forward sentences about addressing pay – but do not table polices to improve pay.  They have heard empty mood music from politicians for too long.  They are also deeply unimpressed when politicians talk about pay in one sentence and then move on to talk about well-paid teachers – as if the new BA Childhood Practice (BACP) qualification has done nothing to raise standards in the sector and isn’t the equal of a teaching qualification.  Indeed, the BACP is more specifically grounded in early years pedagogy than a general teaching qualification. 

“Early years workers, who have been campaigning for equal pay for over 10 years, get very hacked off when politicians put forward sentences about addressing pay – but do not table polices to improve pay.”

The disturbing messages in the government report were not about the numbers of teachers, they were about middle-class public sector professionals getting paid thousands of pounds more than their private sector counterparts.  Politicians need to put forward proposals, now, on how we will address the issue of pay.  

Tavish Scott’s speech which mentioned the term ‘qualifications’ numerous times reminded us that he is a representative of a party that backed and enabled Tory austerity which disproportionately impacted on women.  That is, Scott focussed on availability of qualified staff but he failed to sufficiently and consistently link qualifications to pay.  Scott, summing up for the Liberals, applauded MSPs for the consensus shown in the debate – these self-congratulations smacked of complacency.  Complacency, which seemed oblivious to the fact that we need a radical and speedy response to remove early learning professionals from the scourge of poverty wages.  

The parliament passed the government’s motion - which was to produce a blueprint for action – which hopefully will include longer term solutions to poverty wages.  But, early years professionals will be left wondering why more MSPs didn’t pose the question, what can the government do now, today, to immediately improve wages?  

The government’s report estimates local authorities paid partner providers £79 million in the financial year 2014/15.  This gives the government leverage – is it not possible for them to use this leverage to produce a more radical set of changes to address pay issues in the sector?

“The Scottish Parliament should ensure that in order to receive tax payers money, all early years providers should immediately be required to become living wage employers.”

The Scottish Parliament should ensure that in order to receive tax payers money, all early years providers should immediately be required to become living wage employers (partner providers who are eligible to receive Scottish Government funding should not offer poverty wages).  Then, we need to do three things that are set out in the Common Weal’s ‘An Equal Start’ plan: 

-We need to increase quality, creativity and wages in the early learning sector; 
-We need to publish national pay scales for any organisation receiving funding for early learning from the government; 
-And, we need to produce a national framework for delivering a high-quality childcare service uniformly throughout Scotland (let us hope the ‘blueprint’ does the job required).  

The Scottish Government suggest that 20,000 new workers are required in the sector.  What is the point of expanding the numbers of workers in the work-place if we subject them to poverty wages? Why did the Greens, Labour or the Liberals not post an amendment tieing funding to a living wage?

We need to ensure that a well-paid, universal, integrated, creative, outdoors and multi-professional service becomes available to support learning and care for early years and primary aged children.  This service needs to include childminders and after school club professionals, to ensure that problems with child care between the end of maternity cover and the start of free early years provision are addressed and that the problems of early learning and care are not replicated when these children grow up and need to access out of school provision.  

“These children have every right to ask how a holyrood debate went by without politicians tabling an amendment to challenge the fact that local authorities provide private companies with 79 million pounds a year but don’t ask those companies to pay their mothers a living wage.”

The Common Weal publication:  ‘A Book of Ideas’ advocates very clearly for a creative and outdoors early years service and argues that with the capital funding that is available for new early learning centres we could develop run down high-streets and communities into creative, collaborative and inter-generational spaces (see this link to a Bella Caledonia Report by John Davis and Jamie Mann for more info on the Common Weal’s suggestion).  Such a service needs to include appropriately paid workers.

Early years professionals provide a very valuable service to families and the vast majority of provision is rated as ‘good’ or ‘very good’ by inspectors.  So, when we pay professionals in private and voluntary early learning services poverty wages for producing ‘good’ or ‘very good’ services we do a huge disservice to the tremendous efforts they have made to improve provisions.  We do them a disservice that ignores that in the last ten years these professionals have done a great deal to upscale their knowledge, practice and qualifications (from 50% of professionals qualified ten years ago to almost 100% qualified now).  We also do a disservice to their children, their sons and daughters, who grow up experiencing inequality because their mothers are paid poverty wages.  

These children have every right to ask how a holyrood debate went by without politicians tabling an amendment to challenge the fact that local authorities provide private companies with 79 million pounds a year but don’t ask those companies to pay their mothers a living wage.