10th December 2020

A systematic review of early years degrees and employment pathways

The Education Policy Institute and the Plymouth Institute of Education (University of Plymouth) have published a new report on early years degrees in England, funded by the Nuffield Foundation. 

While degree-qualified staff have been identified as contributing to the quality of early years education, very little is known about the content or structure of degrees, or if graduates go on to work in early years education.

The report examines the full range of early years degrees in England along with the employment trajectories of early years graduates. It finds:

  • A fragmentation in degree choice, content and age of specialisation. Prospective early years students must navigate between as many as 320 different degrees on the UCAS application system, while early years degrees cover a range of subjects, but with no obvious common core.
  • Practical elements of degrees (work placements) are not always strong or uniform
  • Clear differences between early years students and the broader student population in relation to degree choice and employment opportunities
  • Little financial incentive for completing an early years degree, especially if staying in the early years sector for employment
  • Graduates mostly stay in the early years sector, but there is a localised workforce, with little movement between pre-university residence, location of study and employment.

While graduates can play an important role in young children’s education, the apparent inconsistencies shown with early years degrees, combined with other barriers such as lack of financial incentives for graduates, is likely to be creating problems around recognition of their value from students and employers, which may in turn be hindering degree take-up..

    In light of these findings, the report recommends:

    • The establishment of a national group within the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) to review the content and structure of degrees. The review should:
      • Consider what degree content will enable students to fulfil the legislative requirements that they are likely to undertake in future professional roles around child protection and children’s rights.
      • Establish the full range of practical elements and models adopted within early years degrees, including mentoring systems, and minimum expectations of the knowledge and skills of mentors. Findings should inform national minimum work placement/practical requirements for early years degrees.
      • Ensure degrees support students to understand their local contexts and respond to the needs of the children and families in their communities.
    • Further research on the induction systems present for those going on to work in early years education, comprising of analysis of the structural and process features of existing models (including international examples). The research should provide a structure for the development of a feasibility study on appropriate models, the organisational and cost implications, to inform national minimum induction standards for the early years sector.
    • The publication by Higher Education Institutions of how their courses meet QAA benchmarks in a standard and accessible format to support students’ choice.


    You can find out more information about the report here.


    This report is funded by the Nuffield Foundation. The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social wellbeing. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation.

    Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org