Fewer people with more qualifications can’t make childcare better

Childcare qualifications are great, but they don’t help you look after more children at once, as the government seems to be hoping.

I’m one of those people who has more qualifications than sense. These include a PhD in German, a pretend MA from Oxford, and that much-coveted rarity, a GCSE in Esperanto. I’m never quite sure how I ended up with these. It’s not as though I started life qualification-hungry. I was never one of those middle-class girls whose Brownie uniform was covered in yellow and black badges of achievement (I had one badge – the artist one, a pencil – and that was only because the uniform was a hand-me-down from a cousin, who’d drawn the badge-winning picture years earlier). I guess I reached a point, qualification-wise, where I had to make up for lost time and subsequently went to extremes. Still, at least it means I’m great when it comes to looking after hundreds of kids. Little ones? Bring ‘em on! I’m the one with the certificates therefore I can be trusted to handle tots galore (that’ll show all the mean girls who looked down on me just because I never got that stupid “homemaker” badge).

I’m being silly, of course (did I mention my NVQ in silliness?). I struggle with looking after just two small people, who happen to be my own. Therefore I am confused by the government’s current proposal to increase the ratio of children to carers in nurseries providing carers’ qualifications “meet new standards”. Just how is this meant to work?

I realise we’re not just talking about any old qualifications; these will be actual childcare ones, which make you better at looking after other people’s children. Hence it would be wrong to argue that actually, some nursery workers will end up too busy thinking about basket-weaving, astrophysics and conversational French to take care of their charges (worryingly, you don’t seem to need any childcare qualifications when it comes to your own kids; I for one was amazed at being permitted to leave the hospital, newborn in arms, without so much as a multiple-choice quiz). Qualifications in childcare and early years education are useful, I’m sure. All the same, I have this feeling that more in-depth knowledge of child development, the Early Years Foundation Stage and/or the practicalities of nursery work does not necessarily make you better at caring for more children. It’s just a qualification, right? From what I understand you end up with extra skills, not additional arms and legs plus eyes in the back of your head (I mean, there could be a module on herding sheep that’s adapted for playpens, but let’s be honest – herding children is, and always will be, more like herding cats).

I don’t wish to suggest that childcare is not suitable for the over-educated. I don’t hold with the idea that one can be too clever for children (although by the same token, I’ve never bought into the idea that “only boring people find children boring”. If it didn’t sound vaguely sinister, I’d say that kids are an acquired taste). I just don’t believe knowing extra stuff makes it easier to deal with one two-year old needing a wee, another wanting a cuddle, a third having stuck a crayon up his nose and a fourth vomiting on the first (who by now has wet herself). And that’s just the current state of affairs. We’re now talking about adding Kids Five and Six into the mix (Five is currently drawing on your walls in permanent marker while Six has decided to try and flush her knickers down the toilet). Despite the extra qualifications, your carer is in trouble. And yes, you could argue that all that’s needed is more effective discipline but … well, if you think that, good luck to you.

So why is this being proposed? Well, apparently it works in France, and to be fair, French children neither throw food nor talk back, which certainly sounds promising on the child development front. But then such children grow up to be French adults, and I wouldn’t have thought our government would be in favour of that. Moreover, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, the French statistics are misleading, not least because most French children under three are not in childcare anyhow (thanks, it could be argued, to more generous parental leave and home care subsidies).

So if it’s not about being French, is it about saving money? Does the government’s proposal make financial sense? I guess it does, at least if you’re looking for a way in which to appear to be doing something about the cost of childcare without spending a penny yourself. As we all know, childcare is expensive. It should be. Looking after children is incredibly important. All the same, there is profit in it. It strikes me that however much we discuss childcare not being “affordable”, most of the nurseries I’ve encountered are expensive and over-subscribed, yet the staff are often paid little and forced to work uncertain shift patterns. I’m not convinced any savings would be passed on to parents or that workers would find themselves rewarded for all the additional work they would be taking on. Moreover, even if claims that pay would increase while fees dropped are correct, that’s small comfort to those who would find themselves “under-qualified” and supposedly surplus to requirements.

Of all the things this proposal could be about – saving money, emulating the cherry-picked country of the day, elevating the status of nursery workers, getting more women out to work - I don’t think it’s the welfare of children. Writing in the Guardian, Elizabeth Truss MP claims that parents will be given “the confidence they crave from early years education”. Well, Elizabeth, I don’t know about confidence, but I will tell you one thing – paragraphs such as the following strike fear into my heart:

Simply put, quality matters more than quantity. We will not force professionals to take more children than they want to, but it is self-defeating for this country to put a ceiling on pay by having the toughest restrictions in Europe. Where providers face a choice between hiring more staff or hiring better-paid staff with greater ability, I want them to be allowed to pick the vastly preferable second option.

Quality, quantity? We are talking about workers and we are talking about young lives. I might be a middle-class, over-qualified fusspot who farms out her children while she bumbles about living the career woman dream, but I’m not made of stone, and nor, more importantly, are my children. I want them to have cuddles, dammit. I want them to be cared for by people with whom they can form a close relationship. Do you know what bothers me when I pick up my son? It's not the fact that someone’s written “phonic of the week” on the whiteboard when it should in fact be “phoneme” (well, okay, that does bother me, but not that much). What really gets to me is seeing a child crying when there’s no one with arms free to pick him or her up. It’s horrible. And it makes me question the fact that I use nursery at all. It makes me hate myself for not being able to afford to employ a nanny or to stop working. It makes me forget that childcare is a fudge and that for most people it’s never been the 1950s upper middle-class dream that the Daily Mail throws in women’s faces on a daily basis. Hard decisions are made and children suffer. I’m not sure I’ll ever have “confidence” in the structures that are currently on offer, but I don’t want them to be made even worse. In order to thrive, people need people. If we can forget something as basic as that, then our qualifications aren’t worth the paper on which they’re written.

David Cameron visiting a London Early Years Foundation nursery. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.