Sector overview: getting into early years education

Remember your first day at primary school?  If you don’t remember the day itself, you will remember something about your teachers.  Taking those initial steps into the education system is a daunting but exciting time for young children, and the role that teachers play in providing children with a solid foundation for the rest of their educational journey is vitally important.  A job in early years education carries great responsibility but can be extremely rewarding.

Roles within the sector

As well as reception class teachers, early years education roles also include nursery school teachers, pre-school teachers and teaching assistants.  Each of these roles involves working with children aged between three and five, developing and implementing work schemes and lesson plans in line with the requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework.

Early years teachers provide a safe, secure and stimulating environment in which children can achieve early learning goals that will prepare them for progression through their primary education.

Typical activities of an early years teacher include:

  • Supporting the development of children’s personal and social skills, including language, communication and physical co-ordination.
  • Motivating children’s learning abilities, encouraging learning through experience.
  • Utilising learning materials and resources imaginatively, devising and producing visual aids.
  • Encouraging mathematical and creative development through stories, songs, games, drawing and imaginative play.
  • Observing, assessing and recording each child’s progress.
  • Providing pastoral care to children to ensure a secure learning environment.

Personal qualities

A career in early years education can be challenging so it’s important you are equipped with certain personal qualities, including:

  • Excellent communication skills.
  • The ability to build strong relationships with children, parents/carers and colleagues.
  • Organisational and time-management skills.
  • The confidence to manage classes well and deal with challenging behaviour.
  • Initiative, patience and a good sense of humour!

Qualifications / training requirements

To become an early years teacher in a state school or nursery, it is necessary to gain Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) through doing Initial Teacher Training (ITT), of which there are four types:

  • Undergraduate – you can gain QTS alongside studying for a degree, which takes three to four years.
  • Postgraduate – if you already have a degree or equal qualification, you can do a PGCE (Postgraduate Certificate of Education), which takes one to two years.
  • School-centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) – classroom-based, ‘on the job’ training after completing a degree.  The course leads to QTS and takes one year.
  • Work-based – you can gain QTS by working in a school or nursery on a trainee salary as part of one of the following programmes: Graduate Teacher Programme (GTP); Registered Teacher Programme (RTP); Overseas Trained Teacher Programme.

Apprenticeships / internships

If the thought of all that training is rather overwhelming, as an alternative to qualifying as an early years teacher, why not consider becoming a Teaching Assistant (TA) within an early years setting?

  • TAs work alongside the class teacher, often supporting individual pupils or small groups, or helping with tasks that allow the teacher to concentrate on teaching, such as preparing the classroom, setting out equipment or putting together displays of children’s work.
  • There is no set entry-level qualification for being a TA but you would be expected to have good reading, writing and numeracy skills, strong organisational and communication skills, as well as some experience of volunteering in a school.
  • The government run an Apprenticeship in ‘Supporting Teaching and Learning in Schools’. A list of current vacancies for TAs can usually be found on the jobs page of your local council’s website, or why not contact local schools to see if anything is available?

Opportunities / future prospects

Most early years teaching jobs are to be found in state schools, but there may also be opportunities within independent schools, private day nurseries or pre-schools, hospitals, schools run by the armed forces or children’s centres such as Sure Start.

Experienced early years teachers could progress to the role of curriculum leader within a school or ultimately, deputy or head teacher.  Specialism in teaching pupils with special educational needs or a move to private tuition are also options.


As an early years teacher, your main salary would tend to range from £20,627 to £30,148 per year (£25,000 to £34,768 for inner London)


Further information