People often ask why somebody would need a degree to work with young children. The assumption being, that little training is needed to ‘mind’ a child. Thankfully, there has been a shift with regards to the importance of early childhood education and care worldwide, and the complexity of working with young children is increasingly in the spotlight. In Ireland, the period from 2006 to 2016 has been a decade of significant change which saw for example, the introduction of Síolta and Aistear, the ECCE scheme, Better Start, the Child and Family Agency, the Childcare Act 1991 (Early Years Services) Regulations 2016, minimum qualification requirements, and Early Years Education Focussed Inspections.
During this time, 580 students also graduated from Mary Immaculate College with a Level 8 (Honours degree) in Early Childhood Education and Care. In 2007 my colleague Dr. Jennifer Pope and I began to disseminate an annual graduate profile survey. Of the 580 students surveyed, 359 returned completed surveys giving a response rate of 62%. This data now spanning ten years provides interesting insight into graduate perspectives on the value of degree level training, and working in the early years’ sector. It also provides interesting statistical data, showing for example, how demand for the degree increased over time, with student intake increasing by 71%, from 43 students in 2007 to 73 in 2016.
One of the benefits of having a body of data, is that it shows trends, and shifts over time, helps to debunk myths, and draws attention to ongoing issues. Graduates are frequently accused of exiting the sector, opting instead to become primary school teachers. Interestingly, 80% approx., of graduates enter the sector each year to work with children from birth to six years. Not only that, many of them work between 30 and forty hours, or in excess of 40 hours each week. Although some 20% of graduates undertake post graduate study, a small number (1-3 each year) pursue primary school teaching.
Regardless of qualifications, the sector is characterised by low salaries, an issue that is consistently highlighted within the data. It is disheartening to see that the average annual salary throughout the past decade is between €10, 000 – €20,000, far short of the average industrial wage. Because of this, and even though graduates find working with young children ‘exciting’, ‘very rewarding’, ‘everything I thought it would be’ they are concerned about remaining in the sector because ‘money wise, I just can’t make ends meet’ These feelings of dissatisfaction are more apparent among the 2015 and 2016 graduates.
There is still the question about the value of degree level training. The ECCE scheme in 2010 marks a watershed in terms of changing attitudes. Prior to this, graduates reported being told by employers that they were ‘over qualified’. From 2010 onwards, this narrative seems to have changed, and today, graduates report having a ‘highly sought after degree’, which, is considered to be ‘a bonus for employers because they can draw the higher capitation’. But is it all about capitation? Are there other benefits? The evidence suggests that employers are ‘impressed’ with graduates’ knowledge of the Síolta and Aistear frameworks, as well as their knowledge of the sector generally, and their plans and ideas for working with children, which in the words of a graduate ‘was definitely down to my degree’. In turn, graduates are confident about what they bring to the sector and enthusiastically discuss their ability to follow the child’s lead, to plan, implement activities and to reflect upon practice. Ultimately, the real winners are the children. As to whether a degree is needed? I would argue that children deserve it.
Dr. Mary Moloney is a researcher, author and lecturer in Early Childhood Education and Care at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick. She also owned, managed and worked directly with children in her own early years setting fro many years. She is passionate about young children’s early education and care, as well as the professional identity, and well-being of all staff working with, and interested in working with young children. Mary is also interested in international perspectives on early childhood education and her work has been influenced by visits to a broad range of countries including Slovenia, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand and Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy, and more recently by her work as a volunteer with refugee children in Greece.