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.