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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Universal Credit takes £3,700 from single working parents - it's time to call a halt

The shadow work and pensions secretary on the latest analysis of a controversial benefit. 

Labour is calling for the roll out of Universal Credit (UC) to be halted as new data shows that while wages are failing to keep up with inflation, cuts to in-work social security support have meant most net incomes have flat-lined in real terms and in some cases worsened, with women and people from ethnic minority communities most likely to be worst affected.

Analysis I commissioned from the House of Commons Library shows that real wages are stagnating and in-work support is contracting for both private and public sector workers. 

Private sector workers like Kellie, a cleaner at Manchester airport, who is married and has a four year old daughter. She told me how by going back to work after the birth of her daughter resulted in her losing in-work tax credits, which made her day-to-day living costs even more difficult to handle. 

Her child tax credits fail to even cover food or pack lunches for her daughter and as a result she has to survive on a very tight weekly budget just to ensure her daughter can eat properly. 

This is the everyday reality for too many people in communities across the UK. People like Kellie who have to make difficult and stressful choices that are having lasting implications on the whole family. 

Eventually Kellie will be transferred onto UC. She told me how she is dreading the transition onto UC, as she is barely managing to get by on tax credits. The stories she hears about having to wait up to 10 weeks before you receive payment and the failure of payments to match tax credits are causing her real concern.

UC is meant to streamline social security support,  and bring together payments for several benefits including tax credits and housing benefit. But it has been plagued by problems in the areas it has been trialled, not least because of the fact claimants must wait six weeks before the first payment. An increased use of food banks has been observed, along with debt, rent arrears, and even homelessness.

The latest evidence came from Citizens Advice in July. The charity surveyed 800 people who sought help with universal credit in pilot areas, and found that 39 per cent were waiting more than six weeks to receive their first payment and 57 per cent were having to borrow money to get by during that time.

Our analysis confirms Universal Credit is just not fit for purpose. It looks at different types of households and income groups, all working full time. It shows single parents with dependent children are hit particularly hard, receiving up to £3,100 a year less than they received with tax credits - a massive hit on any family budget.

A single teacher with two children working full time, for example, who is a new claimant to UC will, in real terms, be around £3,700 a year worse off in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12.

Or take a single parent of two who is working in the NHS on full-time average earnings for the public sector, and is a new tax credit claimant. They will be more than £2,000 a year worse off in real-terms in 2018-19 compared to 2011-12. 

Equality analysis published in response to a Freedom of Information request also revealed that predicted cuts to Universal Credit work allowances introduced in 2016 would fall most heavily on women and ethnic minorities. And yet the government still went ahead with them.

It is shocking that most people on low and middle incomes are no better off than they were five years ago, and in some cases they are worse off. The government’s cuts to in-work support of both tax credits and Universal Credit are having a dramatic, long lasting effect on people’s lives, on top of stagnating wages and rising prices. 

It’s no wonder we are seeing record levels of in-work poverty. This now stands at a shocking 7.4 million people.

Our analyses make clear that the government’s abject failure on living standards will get dramatically worse if UC is rolled out in its current form.

This exactly why I am calling for the roll out to be stopped while urgent reform and redesign of UC is undertaken. In its current form UC is not fit for purpose. We need to ensure that work always pays and that hardworking families are properly supported. 

Labour will transform and redesign UC, ending six-week delays in payment, and creating a fair society for the many, not the few. 

Debbie Abrahams is shadow work and pensions secretary.