This is an exciting time to be working in the child care industry. There are suddenly so many challenges, changes and strategies which are either government-led or imposed by economy.
I am pleased that there is a regular and constant review of the standards in child care qualifications in the UK. I welcome and endorse the new vision of multi-skilled practitioners who will emerge over the next ten years.
Qualifying at Sixteen?
My concern remains where it has been, ever since I started to train people towards professional qualifications in this industry over twenty years ago. Is it really acceptable to train and offer qualifications to young people aged sixteen?
If a girl of sixteen gives birth to a baby at such an early age, they are offered a lot of support, their choice is to take it or leave it, unless the baby is considered vulnerable if help is not accepted. Some young people are very competent and take to parenting with ease. Having one child, two at most, in home surroundings with, hopefully, family and friends nearby to take over when life gets to be too much, is a completely different scenario from being employed in a nursery setting, with other young people, some qualified, some not.
The burden of responsibility for most youngsters is unfair and unreasonable. It is not of them that I am critical, but of a system that allows us to exploit and exhaust young people. In the wider care sector, anyone may gain a qualification to care, but is unlikely to gain employment before they turn eighteen. It is assumed that the responsibility of caring is a pressure that requires life experience as well as academic evidence of knowledge. In the Green Paper, Every Child Matters, Tony Blair writes that mistakes have been made in the service and care offered to children and young people. I wonder if this is one of them.
Let’s look at a ‘for instance’ – a private nursery owned and managed by the same individual, who may or may not be a child-care professional.
Provided there is a named person with appropriate qualifications and current Criminal Records Certificate, and that within the rest of the staff team, there is the accepted number of people qualified at Level 3 and some qualified at Level 2, with the remainder of the team working towards professional qualifications, the nursery staffing is acceptable under Ofsted rules.
Our example is a small nursery with capacity to care for 20 children in total at any one time. It is not going to make much money, despite reports that nursery child care is expensive in the UK. The nursery owner is legally obliged to ensure that there are enough people employed to meet the requirements for staff to children ratios at all times.
Depending on the ages of the children in this particular nursery, the number of people employed to offer care and education to the children can be seven or more. Even if the parents pay the national average of £128 per week for child care, staffing salaries are going to be very low. The cost of running a building where there are specific regulations with regard to security, safety, maintenance, heating, lighting, ventilation, fresh food etc. leaves very little money for workers’ salaries.
Sixteen to eighteen year olds are more likely to accept low pay than experienced, qualified workers in their twenties or thirties. It makes financial sense to employ a qualified person who is younger, because it costs the owner less money. The average annual salary for a qualified child care professional is between £9,000 and £10,000. It is quite feasible to expect this nursery owner to employ younger staff members, who meet all the other criteria.
An eighteen year old can have already undertaken two years’ training and emerged with a Level 3 qualification. This means that they could be in charge of a nursery room, be a deputy – or even a manager, in a worst-case situation. What a huge and unfair responsibility. Do we have so little regard for our very young children and our emergent adults that we allow this state of affairs to continue?
The Baby Room
Let’s look into the baby room in this nursery. There are six babies, aged between 6 and 23 months and two staff members. The right number of staff for the number of babies is 1:3. One of the babies wakes up and begins to cry. A nursery worker picks up the child and begins to make preparation to change its nappy. Another baby wakes and also begins to cry.
Whilst the first worker is waiting for the changing mat to become available, he takes the baby to sit on his knee on the comfortable chair. Another baby begins to cry. The worker waiting goes to see what the problem is. It’s all right; the baby has just woken and is still feeling disorientated. The worker speaks to the baby whilst still carrying the one who woke earlier. The first baby’s nappy has now been changed and the baby is placed in a bouncy chair on the floor. Another child wants a drink, so one of the workers gets a feeding bottle with boiled water and lets the baby hold it so they can drink.
Someone else begins to cry and the worker is distracted. They go to see what the crying child wants. In the meantime, the baby with the bottle swallows the water too quickly and begins to cough and fight for breath. The other worker gets hold of the baby and begins to pat her back. Eventually, the child breathes normally again and calm is restored for a few minutes. A child propped up by cushions falls back and the sudden movement causes them to scream. This sets off a chain reaction in the others. Each has three crying babies to comfort.
One solution is to switch on the CD player and play music to distract the criers. Someone from the room next door comes in to complain about the noise as they are trying to encourage their children to sleep. It’s a bit stressful isn’t it?
Both workers have qualifications. Both actually care about the children they look after. They do everything as they should. By the end of a typical day which usually lasts from 8.00 a.m. till 5.30 p.m. they then have to clean the nursery to exacting standards because the owner can’t get cleaners. Some owners pay their workers extra to do this; some don’t.
If the cook is away, then someone has to do the cooking for the children and workers within the nursery. It doesn’t matter whether the worker can cook, it is just one more additional job they must learn to do. As a 16 year old, could I tolerate these working conditions for long without getting cross with the babies, or grumpy, or begin to take time away just because I can’t face going into the nursery? I don’t know, do you?
Problems for Young Workers
Young people employed in nurseries are more likely to fall prey to infectious illnesses such as colds, sickness bugs, viruses and so on. They are also of an age when glandular fever strikes. A sickness record doesn’t bode well for future employment. Most nurseries don’t pay sick leave, so workers are obliged to carry on working despite feeling wretched and also perpetuating the illness within the nursery.
A high number of young people are leaving child care after a year, simply because they can be paid more for doing less. Filling supermarket shelves may not be as rewarding, but the hours are to suit and the pay is acceptable. Some young adults have a real vocation for childcare, and it is these people whom we should be nurturing and supporting.
I would prefer to see a dedicated mentoring system established in nurseries, so that young professionals can be offered more than supervision. I would like them to be offered follow-up training in specific areas, such as communication with parents or additional information about protecting children.
Up to now, this is something that workers have to request and most do not do so. They need a proper skills and knowledge audit carried out on a regular basis. In most nurseries, someone is given responsibility for supporting probationers, but most probationary periods are completed within three months.
If this were to begin now, with young employees, we could build on a bank of greater knowledge and expertise than was ever considered necessary just to look after babies and children. We could then look forward to having a real professional status and structure for the child care profession, which could make us one of the top nations in European child care, instead of one of the worst.