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ECEC & Childcare Workforce in Crisis, a Mathematical Solution and Football Puns.

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

Could a mathematical equation solve the crisis in the ECEC and childcare workforce?

Goal D of First Five

The current Government strategy for the Early Learning and Care (ECEC) sector in Ireland is the First Five Whole-of Government Strategy for Babies, Young Children and their Families 2019-2028.

There are several goals which the government have set to be achieved by 2028 as part of the First Five strategy. Goal D is particularly relevant to ECEC and states that there will “be a focus on progressively strengthening the infrastructure that supports the early childhood system”. This goal for strengthening the ECEC system is broken down into 5 building blocks, only 1 of which reference strengthening and reinforcing the ECEC workforce which underpins the entirety of Goal D.

Where is the practitioner in the First Five strategy?

What strikes me is that when I read this strategy, I fail to see the practitioners and the

sector itself reflected in the plan. Of course, it is a strategy for improving the lives of babies, children and their families, but you can’t build something up without cement to hold it together. In this case, the cement that is fundamental to the building blocks of a robust, high quality ECEC sector which children and their families deserve, is the workforce. You need the resources and you need the investment if you want the best outcomes for children. Research already shows that the quality of practitioners and their education and training directly impact children’s ECEC experiences; so, unless we place the practitioner at the centre of Goal D of First Five alongside the child and family, I fail to see how the governments strategy for the sector can be achieved effectively and meaningfully.

A degree led workforce with nobody left in it

First Five goes on to list a 50% degree led workforce as a component part of the strategy. However, with Governmental approach to this sector as fundamentally flawed as it is in terms of funding for families, funding for staff, a dearth of career path opportunities and a lack of pay scales, where is the incentive for practitioners to earn a degree?

I’m not suggesting that practitioners don’t want to get a degree or that a degree led workforce is not a good thing, of course it is. However, there are some worrying results which have just been published by SIPTU from their Early Years Staffing Survey 2021 which found that only 11% of those surveyed said they would recommend a career in ECEC to a friend or family member and that 80% do not intend to be working in the sector next year (SIPTU, 2021). Surely the Government must sit up and take notice of these stark figures? By placing an emphasis on the sustainability of the sector, increased public funding, realistic career and pay paths, not only will a career in ECEC begin to perhaps look more appealing as a career choice, but I believe that it is also placing the child’s best interests front and centre.

A mathematical solution

Nobel Prize winning University of Chicago Economics Professor James Heckman’s “Heckman Equation” provides an insight into the great rewards which can be reaped by “investing in the early and equal development of human potential” (Heckman, 2021). And could also be applied to solve ECEC workforce sustainability.

Invest + Develop+ Sustain = Gain

Heckman’s equation (see image below) is centred around the child and investing in early

childhood development to sustain life-long learning and gain a productive and valuable workforce. However, I would suggest that the principles of the equation should also be applied to the ECEC workforce. If these mathematical principles ran in parallel and simultaneously for both the child and the practitioner, then a stable and highly qualified workforce could develop to deliver quality early childhood education experiences for children. For example:

+Invest – Invest in the workforce, increase pay to reflect the value of the educational role.

+Develop – Develop qualifications and skills. Accept ECEC as part of the formal education system.

+Sustain – Sustain a capable, qualified workforce and reduce turnover of practitioners.

=Gain – Gain a capable, productive and valuable workforce.

Bronfenbrenner, the child and the practitioner

When studying to become an ECEC practitioner, we come to understand a variety of theories on child development. Once such theory, and one of my personal favourites, is Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems Theory. Bronfenbrenner posits that the child is at the centre of concentric systems, each of which has a direct impact on them, their lives and subsequently their development. ECEC sits in the Mesosystem of Bronfenbrenner’s theory alongside the child’s family, peers and health system. Therefore, the impact on the child that an unsustainable workforce where those working within it would discourage others from joining it and mostly plan to leave it cannot possibly be ignored or underestimated.

You won’t score a goal (D) if you can’t field a team

If Goal D of First Five truly aims to “improve the lives of babies, young children and their families” in part by developing a sustainable and degree led workforce by 2028 then huge change is required. The ECEC practitioner needs to be much more visible in the Government’s strategic plans to successfully implement Goal D of First Five. If 80% of practitioners plan on leaving the sector there will be a huge problem because you won’t actually score a goal if you can’t field a team.

About the Author: Paula Walshe is an ECEC trainer and placement assessor in the further education and training sector and a freelance writer. She currently holds a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Education and will complete her studies for a Master’s Degree in Leadership for ECEC in 2022. Paula has extensive ECEC experience in both pedagogical practice and ECEC management. You can learn more about Paula’s work at her website (, where she writes a weekly blog on current topics in Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and provides useful professional and academic resources for students and professionals in this sector. Paula is also one of the creators of an ECE community of practice based on Twitter: ECE Quality Ireland (@ECEQualityIRL) / Twitter Contact Paula: LinkedIn: Paula Walshe / Twitter: @digitalearlyed / Instagram: @digitalearlychildhoodeducator.

The Heckman Equation

Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Systems

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