One of the positives to emerge from the pandemic has been the greater appreciation shown for all critical workers, whether it be NHS staff, social workers, teachers or childcare workers among many others. My hope is that the increased profile of our workforce will remain beyond lockdown or COVID, but it’s also an opportunity to look at all parts of the children’s workforce holistically.
At the national level the children’s workforce is disconnected as at least half a dozen Government departments hold responsibility for different aspects of children’s policy. Take youth work, whose remit sits with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I was heartened to see that youth workers have been classed as critical workers, but we are yet to see a clear vision or strategy from Government for youth services. Instead, the National Citizenship Service has been promoted as a flagship programme.
Youth workers offer the earliest of early help opportunities to prevent problems from escalating, but the number of qualified individuals has fallen dramatically over the past decade. Similarly, for youth justice workers (whose remit sits in the Ministry of Justice) there is a clear need for regular high-quality training to help them build relationships with children. And yet we are faced with a decade of budget cuts in this area.
Early years professionals have also come to the fore, and many parents/carers have relied upon their support. The early years provides the best opportunity to make a tangible difference to children’s outcomes and to closing the attainment gap.
However, the sector continues to be woefully under-resourced while the workforce has long struggled to recruit and retain enough qualified staff – and this is before we know what the impact of Brexit will be.
It was most starkly put earlier this year by the Social Mobility Commission which said: ‘Society does not value the early years workforce as it should’. The Government must ensure the sustainability of this sector in the short-term in the wake of the pandemic, but there is an equal need to invest in its long-term future by resourcing a high quality, qualified workforce.
The children’s workforce has always been essential, not only during lockdown but before and afterwards as well. The argument for investment is clear, but unless there is a national strategy for the entire workforce, it will remain fragmented and under-resourced.
Jenny Coles is president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services president 2020/21 and director of children’s services at Hertfordshire CC