I'm sure that the government's report "More Great Childcare" has not escaped your attention this week. It has certainly been on my mind a lot and I couldn't escape writing a post about it.
I'm by no means an expert on this, but I do have my fair share of experience in the childcare sector. My mother was a childminder when I was growing up, creating a life-long interest in children and their care. Following graduation I worked in two nurseries, working over the age ranges of 3 months through to 4 years. I also volunteered in a village school and later worked as a lunchtime supervisor in a local school during my pregnancy. Though the latter two were not of the age range described in the report, it did give me a good idea of what comes after Early Years childcare and made me wonder why there was so much emphasis on teaching children at such a young age, when their minds are still developing rapidly and they want to explore through play, not heavily structured sessions.
I couldn't believe the amount of paperwork involved in Early Years childcare and spent more time doing that than interacting with the children. Though promised the chance to do an NVQ Level 3, I never had the opportunity because time and funding did not allow it. And essentially I left both nurseries due to the fact that I just could not survive on the ridiculously low wage provided, however much I wanted to be there.
So although I would love to see childcare staff given the option to train more fully, the government's idea of making staff "more qualified" whilst reducing the cost makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. There is too little funding available for adequate training of all staff in the first place.
Childcare staff are, in my experience, undervalued, overworked, and underpaid. I agree that this needs to change, but I don't see how the changes proposed by the government will make things any better... if anything it feels like it will make things a whole lot worse.
Of course, I no longer work in childcare per se, but I do work as a PA for a company which provides training for childcare practitioners. The company's director and lead consultant has won awards and national recognition for her work and the focus is always on "best practice". So you can imagine how much these proposed changes have been discussed in the office this week! But putting work aside, I worry about these changes as a mother as well. How will the proposed changes affect the care my own child receives when I'm at work and he's with his childminder?
The best way to look at this is to take key points in the report that have me concerned. I'd love to hear your thoughts on these too.
Let's start with the qualification of staff
"We will improve early years qualifications so that parents and providers can
have greater confidence in the calibre of people who are teaching our
youngest children. We will raise the quality of those entering the workforce
by imposing tougher entry requirements"
Okay, so we'd all like to see that those caring for our children have been on training courses and have a firm understanding of the major developments children go through in the early years. But how will the proposed qualifications differ from those already provided. What will happen to those who have done several qualifications previously - will these become "irrelevant"? And who will fund this training, and will it make a difference to the salary of each member of staff? And is the training to take place alongside work (meaning staff have to fit it into evenings and weekends) or do they need to be fully qualified before even starting? There is too little detail in the report to make me think this is anything more than a "pie in the sky" idea.
Then there's the "tougher entry requirements". What about people with something like dyslexia, who would make excellent childcarers but just cannot easily complete a degree or pass the entry requirements in the first place? Will the government help those who are currently working in the childcare sector but don't meet these requirements? Will they fund classes and resits of exams or will these people be made to leave if they cannot fulfil the requirements or fund the training themselves? Having been to university I know an awful lot of people who could do a degree in childcare but who wouldn't know where to begin with caring for our children. Academic success doesn't always equate to better childcare! We're risking losing a lot of wonderful staff, who care for the children enough to put up with awful pay for long hours, and I for one don't want to lose the people who care that much!
Now let's look at ratios...
"Where there are high quality staff, greater flexibility in staffing can work.
We will, therefore, free high quality providers to offer more places by
allowing greater flexibility. That flexibility for nurseries should go hand in
hand with higher quality, so providers will only be able to operate with more
children per adult if they employ high quality staff. This will give providers
extra income to pay staff more, and it will give more parents the choice of a
great childcare place for their child. We will consult on the qualification
requirements which will support this additional freedom. It should be stressed
that these ratios will be maximum legal limits – no settings will be obliged
to use higher ratios, and parents will still be free to choose nurseries that
operate on existing ratios if they prefer."
I don't personally understand the thinking behind this at all! Higher qualified staff do not negate the need for a certain number of arms, legs and eyes needed to care for children.
When I worked in my first nursery, the ratio was 1 adult to 3 babies under the age of one. Have you ever tried to care for three babies at once, all on your own? It is impossible! You only have two arms... so even if you have one baby in each arm, there is one left alone. There were times when I would have to sit on the floor, with a baby in each arm, hooking my arm around to hold their bottle to their mouth, and have a third baby in a bouncer on the floor, rocking it with my foot and singing to try and calm them all down. I am not exaggerating... this is the reality of the current ratios! And they want to change this?
That's not even thinking about the fact that say there were 4 members of staff in a room, with 3 babies each, there would be times when one would be preparing milk in the kitchen, one would be changing a nappy in the changing room, and so 2 members of staff would be left in the room with 12 babies between them!
The reality of this is the reason I chose a childminder over a nursery because, unfortunately, having worked in a nursery and seeing how hard it is, no matter how qualified or committed you are, I preferred for my son to go to a childminder where there would be less children around. Please note, this is NOT a criticism of childcare staff at all. It is a criticism of the system and how much pressure it puts on the staff, who work damn hard!!!
And these workers, even if more qualified and able to take on more children, will not be able to provide lower fees for parents because they will a) expect and deserve more money (how many graduates do you know who go into their chosen career for minimum wage?) and b) be so much more overworked than they already are that sickness rates will surely rise.
"We will give childminders more flexibility. They will still only be able to
look after six children in total. However, we will increase the number of
under-5s they can look after from three to four, and the number of under-1s
they can look after from one to two. We will also provide an explicit
allowance for overlaps between children by making clear childminders can
exceed these new ratios by one for reasonable periods of time. Once again, it
is important to stress that these will be the maximum limits on the number of
children childminders can look after – childminders will be free to carry on
using existing ratios and parents will be able to choose childminders who care
for fewer children if they wish."
Childminders are also mentioned, and I don't envy any person working at home, alone, with 4 children under the age of 5! I can't help but worry, as a parent, how this will affect my own son's care should his childminder change her ratios, because the same principles apply for childminders in terms of ratios as I mentioned for nursery staff above. And it begins to negate the very reason I chose a childminder over a nursery (see above).
Regulations and Inspections
"Current regulations can cause a preoccupation with relatively trivial issues,
such as the amount of floorspace per child and whether the nursery has a room
where staff can talk confidentially to parents. This gets in the way of
allowing staff and inspectors to concentrate on the most important
consideration: how well adults are interacting with children."
Whilst I agree that the way adults interact with children is absolutely crucial, I am extremely concerned by the government's suggestion that issues such as floorspace and a room to talk confidentially to parents are "trivial issues". I cannot tell you how important I believe these issues are... each child needs a certain amount of space, for safety and for the room to explore and play, and if you lose the rooms for confidential discussions with parents (or even between staff) you lose something truly basic and necessary. Nobody wants to discuss sensitive topics in the corner of a room full of staff and children!
"Parents can also struggle to find traditional nursery classes led by teachers.
The evidence suggests groups led by better-qualified staff offer higher
quality support for children age 30 months to five. It is already possible for
providers to care for thirteen children per adult where a teacher is present,
but private and voluntary nurseries often prefer to use non-graduates in groups
with a lower ratio of 1:8. In too many early years settings, those with
graduate qualifications are carrying out largely administrative functions
rather than working with groups of children."
There is a fair bit about parental choice and again, whilst I agree more choice would be nice, I do not think the report adequately takes into account how these changes will affect the quality of care.
Even in a school setting, where the ratios are higher, there are support staff available to help out. Yet the above section seems to propose that a teacher should be able to take on up to 13 three-year-olds on his or her own. Can you imagine trying to meet the needs of that many three-year-olds? Some may be struggling with the change from home-life to childcare (if they were starting nursery for the very first time due to the funded places for pre-schoolers), some may still be getting used to going to the toilet without having the odd accident, and some may still require an afternoon nap! There is a big difference between a three-year-old and a five-year-old who is starting school.
I could go on (and on and on) about my thoughts on this, but there is so much to cover and I am running out of time. Instead, I'll leave you with the link to the government's report, where you can read more about the thinking behind each of the above issues, as well as Nursery World's Guide to the Key Points of the report.
I also want to link to some of the other articles and blogs that I have read over the past few days regarding this, so you can see other points of view and make your own decision on what you think about all of this. Don't forget, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Around the web
This post from Childcare is Fun notes how Nannies have been totally ignored by the report.
This post by Imogen Parker on the London School of Economics and Political Science, focusses on the lack of detail in the report as to how the proposed changes would actually work.
This is Rosie Murray-West's response to the report in The Telegraph
(can I just say that the choice of image at the top of this article made me chuckle so much... because that is exactly what I can imagine rooms to look like if the ratios change!)
This is Viv Groskop's response to the report in The Independent.
(My favourite part being "Two adults in charge of a dozen two-year-olds? Qualifications will not help you there. Ear plugs and sainthood might.")
And, so that I am slightly less biased in the views of the articles being shared, here is Elizabeth Truss' guest post on Mumsnet.
Join in the Consultation
You can join in the government's consultation here, however at the time of posting this link there was a technical error on the site. I hope it is resolved soon.