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
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Time to start fixing the broken safety net that no longer catches struggling families

We are failing to ensure we look after the children of families both in and out of work.

Families on low incomes are once again bearing the brunt of a tough economic environment. Over the past decade, rising costs of items such as food, energy and childcare, combined with stagnating wages and cuts in benefits, have repeatedly put a squeeze on family budgets.

Between 2014 and 2016, some of these pressures eased, as inflation sank to zero and pay started to grow again. But now that inflation has returned, for the first time in postwar history the increasing cost of a child is being combined with a freeze in all financial support for children. The failure to uprate either benefits, tax credits or the wage levels at which tax credits are withdrawn means that inflation is bound to erode modest family incomes both in and out of work.

The gradual fall in living standards that this produces will be worsened by other benefit cuts that come in over the next few years, for different families at different times. For a start, the phasing out of the “family element” of Child Tax Credit (and its equivalent in Universal Credit) will eventually result in all low-income families getting more than £500 a year less from the state than at present.

Since this only applies to families whose oldest child was born in April 2017 or later, it hits families with the youngest children first, with the effect spreading gradually through the population. The restriction of tax credit entitlements to a maximum of two children is also being phased in, affecting only third children born from this year on, but will clobber families much more severely, with a loss of nearly £2,800 a year per child.

Some existing larger families who escape this cut have nevertheless had their income severely reduced this year (by anything up to £6,000) by the reduction in the benefit cap.

My latest report on the cost of a child, for Child Poverty Action Group, takes stock of these trends and the effects they will have on parents’ ability to provide for their families effectively. For some families in work, improved support for childcare and a higher minimum wage partially offsets the losses incurred as a result of the above cuts. But for those relying on benefits as a “safety net” when they are not working, the level of this net is being progressively lowered over time. On present policies, the support that it provides will sink below half of what families need as a minimum sometime early in the 2020s – having in contrast provided about two thirds of their requirements at the start of the present decade.

There comes a point when a “safety net” stops being worthy of its name because it is no longer enough to provide even the bare essentials of modern life. The evidence shows that when income sinks this low, most families can only escape severe material hardship either by going into debt or by getting help from extended family members.

We are about to enter a new parliamentary season, led by a government that survived by the skin of its teeth after a disgruntled electorate failed to give it the clear majority that it sought. Raising family living standards has been at the heart of the political promise to improve people’s lives. The benefits freeze alone seems to contradict this promise by creating a downward escalator for the half of families relying on some kind of means-tested benefit or tax credit, in combination with child benefit.

For those  who are “just about managing”, and particularly for others who are not managing at all, the clearest signal that Philip Hammond could give in his Autumn Budget that he is starting  to reverse the direction of that escalator would be to restore a system of benefit upratings. This would at least allow incomes to keep up with living costs, stopping things from getting systematically worse, and giving a stable foundation on which measures to improve living standards could build.

Professor Donald Hirsch is director of the Centre for Research in Social Policy at Loughborough University