Nursery jobs seen as equivalent to hairdressing

An alarming insight into the quality of carer qualifications has been quietly deposited on the Educa

What does it take to work in a nursery looking after young children? Answering that question is, broadly speaking, the task set last year by the Department for Education to Professor Cathy Nutbrown of Sheffield University. The interim report from her review of "Early Education and Childcare Qualifications" is published today.

It contains, couched in the cautious and even-handed language that is required of such documents, some fairly hair-raising observations.

The overall impression is that the system is a mess. There are different competing qualifications that make very different demands of students. While some courses are excellent, others spoon-feed and coach young people (mostly girls) through token requirements that leave them ill-equipped actually to care for babies and toddlers. Professor Nutbrown refers to a "hair or care" perception among some school-leavers, abetted by teachers, that working in a nursery is equivalent in difficulty and status to hairdressing. Levels of literacy and numeracy are patchy. One respondent is quoted as saying their college expects a higher academic standard from students on animal care courses. Professor Nutbrown observes, rightly, that:

"It must be a reason for concern that early years courses are often the easiest to enrol on and the courses that the students with the poorest academic records are sometimes steered towards."

This is all more than a little alarming. The extension of nursery places is a key part of the government's plans to help young children from disadvantaged backgrounds (the evidence suggests a structured learning environment early on boosts development). Nurseries are also essential if parents of young children are to go back to work, which is a desirable outcome for them personally and for the labour market in general. But those goals are made trickier (and harder to sell politically) if the quality of care is as patchy - downright risky potentially - as Professor Nutbrown's report implies. And there is a wider question. Are we really happy as a society to accept a system that presents looking after our children as drudge work, deserving a minimum wage and not requiring good qualifications in English of Maths?

News, you might think. Well, there is a press release on the Department for Education website if you know to look for it. There had been plans for a proper announcement and launch. It was on "the grid" - Downing Street's strategic news management calendar. Then it suddenly fell off the grid. Why?

My understanding is that there are divisions in government and in the Department over whether or not this bad news should get a good airing before decisions have been taken about what the good news response will be. (That can't happen until the final report is published later in the year.)

There might also something of an ideological battle going on. Conservative MPs who take an interest in this stuff are lobbying hard for the nursery sector to be deregulated, the assumption being that problems of affordability and availability of childcare come down to limits on supply enforced by onerous rules. The thrust of Professor Nutbrown's findings so far would seem to lead thinking in the opposite direction - that there should be more rigorous enforcement of standards and more demanding qualifications for nursery workers. In the short term, that could end up leading to a fall in supply as fewer young people meet the required standard to take jobs in nurseries.

These are tricky dilemmas indeed for government, although I'm not sure they're best resolved by hiding a very revealing report on the Education Department's website and apparently hoping no one would notice.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Westminster terror: Parliament hit by deadly attack

The Met Police is treating the events in Westminster as a "terrorist incident". 

A terrorist attack outside Parliament in Westminster has left four dead, plus the attacker, and injured at least 40 others. 

Police shot dead a man who attacked officers in front of the parliament building in London, after a grey 4x4 mowed down more than a dozen people on Westminster Bridge.

At least two people died on the bridge, and a number of others were seriously hurt, according to the BBC. The victims are understood to include a group of French teenagers. 

Journalists at the scene saw a police officer being stabbed outside Parliament, who was later confirmed to have died. His name was confirmed late on Wednesday night as Keith Palmer, 48.

The assailant was shot by other officers, and is also dead. The Met Police confirmed they are treating the events as a "terrorist incident". There was one assailant, whose identity is known to the police but has not yet been released. 

Theresa May gave a statement outside Number 10 after chairing a COBRA committee. "The terrorists chose to strike at the heart of our Capital City, where people of all nationalities, religions and cultures come together to celebrate the values of liberty, democracy and freedom of speech," she said.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has tweeted his thanks for the "tremendous bravery" of the emergency services. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also released a short statement. He said: "Reports suggest the ongoing incident in Westminster this afternoon is extremely serious. Our thoughts are with the victims of this horrific attack, their families and friends. The police and security staff have taken swift action to ensure the safety of the public, MPs and staff, and we are grateful to them."

After the incident this afternoon, journalists shared footage of injured people in the street, and pictures of a car which crashed into the railings outside Big Ben. After the shots rang out, Parliament was placed under lockdown, with the main rooms including the Commons Chamber and the tearoom sealed off. The streets around Parliament were also cordoned off and Westminster Tube station was closed. 

Those caught up in the incident include visitors to Parliament, such as schoolchildren, who spent the afternoon trapped alongside politicians and political journalists. Hours after the incident, the security services began evacuating MPs and others trapped inside Parliament in small groups. 

The MP Richard Benyon tweeted: "We are locked in Chamber of House of Commons." Shadow education secretary Angela Rayner tweeted: "I'm inside Parliament and me and my staff are safe."

The MP Jo Stevens was one of the first to confirm reports that a police officer had been attacked. She tweeted: "We've just been told a police officer here has been stabbed & the assailant shot."

George Eaton, the New Statesman politics editor, was in the building. He has written about his experience here:

From the window of the parliamentary Press Gallery, I have just seen police shoot a man who charged at officers while carrying what appeared to be a knife. A large crowd was seen fleeing the man before he entered the parliamentary estate. After several officers evaded him he was swiftly shot by armed police. Ministers have been evacuated and journalists ordered to remain at their desks.   

According to The Telegraph, foreign minister Tobias Ellwood, a former soldier, tried to resucitate the police officer who later died. Meanwhile another MP, Mary Creagh, who was going into Westminster to vote, managed to persuade the Westminster tube staff to shut down the station and prevent tourists from wandering on to the scene of the attack. 

A helicopter, ambulances and paramedics soon crowded the scene. There were reports of many badly injured victims. However, one woman was pulled from the River Thames alive.

MPs trapped inside the building shared messages of sympathy for the victims on Westminster Bridge, and in defence of democracy. The Labour MP Jon Trickett has tweeted that "democracy will not be intimidated". MPs in the Chamber stood up to witness the removal of the mace, the symbol of Parliamentary democracy, which symbolises that Parliament is adjourned. 

Brendan Cox, the widower of the late, murdered MP Jo Cox, has tweeted: "Whoever has attacked our parliament for whatever motive will not succeed in dividing us. All of my thoughts with those injured."

Hillary Benn, the Labour MP, has released a video from inside Parliament conveying a message from MPs to the families of the victims.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron has also expressed his sympathy. 

While many MPs praised the security services, they also seemed stunned by the surreal scenes inside Parliament, where counter-terrorism police led evacuations. 

Those trapped inside Parliament included 40 children visiting on a school trip, and a group of boxers, according to the Press Association's Laura Harding. The teachers tried to distract the children by leading them in song and giving them lessons about Parliament. 

In Scotland, the debate over whether to have a second independence referendum initially continued, despite the news, amid bolstered security. After pressure from Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, the session was later suspended. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted that her "thoughts are with everyone in and around Westminster". The Welsh Assembly also suspended proceedings. 

A spokesman for New Scotland Yard, the police headquarters, said: "There is an ongoing investigation led by the counter-terrorism command and we would ask anybody who has images or film of the incident to pass it onto police. We know there are a number of casualties, including police officers, but at this stage we cannot confirm numbers or the nature of these injuries."

Three students from a high school from Concarneau, Britanny, were among the people hurt on the bridge, according to French local newspaper Le Telegramme (translated by my colleague Pauline). They were walking when the car hit them, and are understood to be in a critical condition. 

The French Prime Minister Bernard Cazeneuve has also tweeted his solidarity with the UK and the victims, saying: "Solidarity with our British friends, terribly hit, our full support to the French high schoolers who are hurt, to their families and schoolmates."

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.