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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.