How having an early years degree boosts career progression

What do ECS degrees and the Early Childhood Graduate Practitioner Competencies mean for career progression? By Philippa Thompson and Tanya Richardson at the Early Childhood Studies Degrees Network

 In this article, we will explore the application of the degrees and the GPCs in the early years workplace and the career progression that these can lead to.

What are the ECS degrees and the GPCs?

An Early Childhood Studies degree is a Level 6 qualification that provides students with a holistic understanding of young children and their families, equipping those who study this to be reflective professionals in the workforce and advocates for children.

The Graduate Practitioner Competencies are an optional certificate that students can work towards that shows employers they have the practice knowledge at Level 6 as well as the theory and knowledge that the degree provides. To gain the competencies, students have to complete a portfolio, evidencing their ability to critically reflect and apply knowledge to practice, all at a Level 6 standard, in the following areas:

  • Advocating for young children’s rights and participation.
  • Promoting holistic child development.
  • Working directly with young children, families and colleagues to promote health, wellbeing, safety and nurturing care.
  • Observing, listening and planning for young children to support their wellbeing, early learning, progression and transitions.
  • Safeguarding and child protection.
  • Inclusive practice.
  • Partnership with parents and caregivers.
  • Collaborating with others.
  • Ongoing professional development.

The breadth of the GPC portfolio ensures that the students have a broad practical knowledge that they can apply to working with children in any environment. As part of their portfolio, students have to be observed and assessed on placement, which results in them receiving feedback on how to best support children’s development and learning.

How do ECS degrees and the GPCs prepare students for the early childhood workplace?

In order to gain the competencies, students need to attend a range of placements, and over their three years of study they need to accumulate 80 days of placement experience, made up in the following way:

  • At Level 4 – 25 days.
  • At Level 5 – 30 days.
  • At Level 6 – 25 days.

These placement experiences should be covering the age range of the course, so from babies through to eight-year-olds, and where possible should be at a range of settings to include education, health and social care experiences. This obviously gives students a real insight into the different careers open to them and to the complexities of the different roles.

The nature of the competencies means that students have to be very focused on the practical elements of working with children and their families, in a holistic way. The competencies are not designed purely for those working in an educational environment, but also for those who wish to pursue careers in fields such as health, social work, or the wider early childhood industries. What this results in are graduates who are very well prepared for a multi-disciplinary workforce, with the ability to reflect deeply and critically analyse policy, practice and procedures. These skills are obviously crucial in the workplace, particularly in the world we find ourselves in today, whereby individuals need to be able to be adaptable, resilient and use their skills in a multifaceted way.

Nowshin, a graduate of Early Childhood Studies with Graduate Practitioner Competencies, sums this up:

‘As a graduate practitioner, I strongly believe that all people involved in the early childhood sector need to advocate for young children both inside and outside the settings…our society is constantly changing. Therefore, children need to be supported in ways that aid them in developing all skills and knowledge that will help them to deal with what the future holds.’ (Extract taken from The Early Childhood Graduate Practitioner Competencies book, edited by Carolyn Silberfeld).

What difference do these graduates make to the workplace and those within it?

We know, from much research over the years, that having graduates in the workplace makes a difference to children’s outcomes. A highly qualified workforce results in higher-quality provision and improved outcomes for young children. Early Childhood Studies graduates have spent three years studying, in detail, how children play and learn best – they have considered the impact of the family situation, the impact of society, have studied safeguarding in depth, will understand how to research and how to interpret the research they do. This is a snapshot of just some of the essential knowledge for working in the early childhood arena.

It is early days to have empirical evidence on the impact that these are having on the workplace overall, as far as the competencies are concerned. However, the Early Childhood Studies Degrees Network (ECSDN) has funded research projects into assessing the impacts on placements and on the students so far.

This research has indicated that those students who are engaged in the competencies appear especially keen and focused on placement and gaining as much experience as they can. Placement mentors have reported the benefits of the competencies to be:

  • ‘[The competencies are] very child centred, which is good in the changing climate of schools. It’ll be good to have students coming into EYFS settings with a clear purpose of supporting the needs of the child.’
  • ‘[Students have] a better understanding of a practitioner’s roles.’
  • ‘The student can easily identify what makes a good practitioner and all the elements on early childhood work. It sets out clear expectations.’

These quotes from those in the workplace recognise that the competencies are really helping those individuals develop their confidence and their application of their skills and knowledge in the workplace.

This in turn is going to make a difference to the lives of the children and the families with whom they work on a day-to day-basis.

What career progression do the ECS degrees and the GPCs lead to?

By having an Early Childhood Studies degree, graduates can progress into a vast range of graduate roles. Previous graduates have gone on to post-graduate study to train as teachers, social workers, child nurses, play therapists and researchers. Others have moved into employment immediately as child protection officers, nursery managers, business owners, civil servants, policy-makers, graduate interns, curriculum leads, children’s rights advocates and family support roles. And what is such a fabulous aspect of the Early Childhood Studies degree is that it has the flexibility to allow this career variety – the world really is at the graduates’ feet.

Joanna, a graduate, who is now a specialist SEND teacher, said of the course:

‘All of the skills, knowledge and understanding I gained during my degree are incredibly useful in my role. The course was incredibly vast in learning opportunities – I learned about so many important elements of working with children, including safeguarding, the law, partnership with parents and diversity and inclusion – we covered everything from birth to age eight.’

Underlying knowledge

Joanna believes that having this as a foundation for her training was incredible. ‘It meant that I knew the important areas in a classroom and how to make it an enabling environment,’ she said.

She added, ‘Every single module has relevancy when working with children. I’m so glad I chose this course – the underlying knowledge and experience I received was incredible.’

Early Childhood Studies courses really do change lives – not just the lives of children and their families but also the lives of those who study the degree.


  • For more information about careers and degree courses, visit Prospects’ ‘Early childhood studies’ page.
  • For specific information about the degrees, look on specific university websites and their online prospectus information, and it is recommended to attend a range of open days.
  • Nursery World‘s Guide to Early Childhood Degrees digibook, published in partnership with the Early Childhood Studies Degrees Network.
  • The Nursery World Awards 2023 include a new category, Early Childhood Graduate of the Year. This is open to any early childhood studies degree graduate (or equivalent course that is mapped to the QAA SBS 2022) who has demonstrated exemplary practice in their field, providing the best possible service for young children and their families. Click here to enter. This category is sponsored by the Early Childhood Studies Degrees Network.

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