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

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.