Thursday, 19 February 2015

Children (and childcare) as commodities…

It’s odd how, every time there’s a news item or report, like there is today, on the BBC website, about the rising cost of childcare, there’s very rarely any mention of either the fact that it really should be a formal part of the education system – and therefore a public service: there’s a reason it’s called ‘early years education’ – or the absolutely abysmal wages that most childcare staff get paid (especially when compared against others working in the education sector).

One of the major reasons for this increase in cost – although tucked away at the bottom of the BBC article – is that, as pointed out by the National Day Nurseries Association: “some parents are subsidising the cost of the government’s free nursery places [as] the money which childcare providers receive to deliver these free placements falls short by an average of £800 per child per year for each three to four-year-old place and £700 for each two-year-old place.” In other words, although the Government is subsidizing childcare, its payments don’t actually cover anywhere near all the costs of providing that childcare, or enough of it – only some small part – which, when staff are paid so little, shows just how tokenistic the Government’s measly efforts are.

And yet, referring to the Birmingham ‘Trojan horse’ row, back in June, last year, David Cameron said that “Protecting our children is one of the first duties of government…”. If that is true – and I, for one, believe it is (but then I couldn’t afford to employ a full-time nanny for my son; or pay fees for his education; nor was private education the one and only experience my family had…) – why is the UK’s childcare in such a mess?

As with most of government, nowadays, a large part of the answer to this question lies in the Coalition’s aims to subcontract out everything they can lay their hands on: including child protection – although, here, I am only concerned with early years education (which doesn’t, as some may think/wish, involve serried ranks of under-fives sitting at desks, memorizing their tables; but, instead, learning through what can best, perhaps, be summarized as planned play and interaction – both with their peers, and the adults looking after them).

The word ‘education’ seems to conveniently be forgotten, though (a bit like ‘sustainable’, when attached to development, in the NPPF), when pre-schools and nurseries are discussed by those not involved in their day-to-day running: as if such institutions are just glorified child-minding services – which is one of the main reasons why staff are paid such pitiful salaries; and not only is the National Minimum Wage the norm (although employees are then expected, in some private settings, to stay behind for ‘voluntary’ – i.e. unpaid – staff meetings: reducing their wages yet further…), but so, as a consequence, is the required level of qualifications (level 2 or level 3: which can now be fast-tracked). “The sector has suffered from stereotypical views that it is ‘women’s work that anybody can do’.”

On top of this – with “The care of young children [being] accepted as a vital social task for which well-trained staff are necessary” – there is lip-service paid to a need for early years educators with (relevant) degrees: which would raise standards (as well as wages: but be cost-effective, in the long-term) – but then nursery workers, as I have already said, are paid a great deal less than their equivalents would earn in industry (as well as the rest of the education sector): as the rates we pay per hour for the care of our babies and toddlers (although seemingly high, and ever-increasing) lack the government funding and support that is prevalent in mainland Europe: making it incredibly difficult for nurseries and the like to profit – especially in the short-term – unless short-cuts are taken.

According to Tom Rawstorne, in the Daily Mail (23 June 2011):

While the average UK hourly wage is £14.50, nursery staff earn, on average, £7.60 an hour. Managers are on £10.60 an hour, while the lowest paid get £6.40. Privately owned nurseries pay their staff the least: an average of £7.10 compared to £11.60 offered by local authorities.

He goes on to state that…

In 1981, only 24 per cent of women returned to work within a year of childbirth. Today, the Department for Work and Pensions says that more than three-quarters of mothers return to work within 12 to 18 months of having a child.

This is obviously driven by economic necessity – the need to survive and earn a living wage in times of austerity. However, it seems ironic that those people then paid to look after our children are not able to escape an even deeper version of the same trap. (Do we really value our children, and their wellbeing, so very little, when they are out of our sight…?)

Even though I – and I hope you – struggle to understand any justification for the privatization of childcare (indeed any part of education), too many settings are established and run solely as businesses, in response to this growing need: trying to grab a slice of the rapidly-expanding pie; but with profit coming before (or even instead of) care. Which is why our youngsters have become so commodified – unless you can find one of those rare community-led, social enterprise-based settings; or one attached to an enlightened primary school.

Go to a privately-owned nursery – the majority, I’m afraid (but not all) – and the chances are – should you be allowed to witness the daily goings-on – that anything moving and breathing (both kiddies and staff – who are predominantly female) will be treated with disdain: especially, as in many places with low wages, survival is guaranteed through gritted teeth, and emotionless graft, rather than vocational desire: resulting in “a culture of bullying that all-too-often exists among workers who are young and inexperienced”. This seems to be worse when the setting is part of a chain, or belongs to a large company.

As one employee I spoke to stated – with experience of both public and private sectors early years work:

The private sector is like the grey squirrel: eating all the food; taking it away from the increasingly rare red squirrel provision of the public and voluntary sectors; and destroying their habitat – all in the name of greed, not care.

The situation is not helped by the lack of understanding and thought shown, typically, by Ofsted; and their refusal to end outsourced inspections for early years education:

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said the decision was disappointing. “We have heard far too many reports of providers being visited by inspectors who possess little understanding of early years provision – and in some cases being unfairly graded as a result…”.

But this, again, shows how education for those below primary school level isn’t really seen or treated as education. It is a very poor (disowned?) cousin – not only with regards to funding – but in attitude and treatment. It is almost as if we are handing over our children before we head to work, and then forgetting about them, not worrying about the long days they experience without us. (No wonder boarding schools are so popular amongst the supposed elite.) Contrast this with the delightful forest schools of Germany and Scandinavia, for example (and the very rare true example over here) – particularly the enlightened Finnish education system – where children are remarkably happy, as well as intellectually (but maybe not – yet – academically) mature.

It certainly doesn’t help that the provision of childcare through Sure Start children’s centres has been slaughtered by the current Government – with a lethal combination of yet more privatization and a blitzkrieg against local council budgets – hitting, as always, those with the least resources; and leaving already deprived children with an even worse start in life. Thankfully, if he is to be believed, Tristram Hunt has promised, recently, “to double the number of childcare places provided at Sure Start centres to more than 118,000” if Labour wins this May’s general election. It’s nice to see my letter to Ed Miliband has achieved something…!

However, as I wrote there:

Whether by accident or design, Sure Start children’s centres – and the critical work they do – have remained invisible to those who don’t need and/or use them: and therefore aren’t seen as important as [the] NHS. However, they are fundamental to the wellbeing of many young children; and indispensable to their families. (Some of the centres even host those damned foodbanks.) They should therefore be a jewel shining in Labour’s crown just as brightly as Aneurin Bevan’s gift to the nation….

But there is next to no unionization in early years education (including Sure Start) – not only in the UK; but it is actively quashed in the US, as well – and those few workers who are members belong to a wide range of organizations: and therefore would find it hard to commit to any form of joint action (knowing, anyway, that to do so, would risk them losing their jobs). Voice – “the union for education, early years & childcare professionals” – won’t strike, though. And yet, like the recent NHS four-hour walk-outs, such action is probably exactly what is needed to attract the public’s attention to the little-known, but increasingly necessary services, that Sure Start provides (and which are being privatized, not very stealthily, just like the NHS); and to remind politicians of their importance.

It may also be what it takes for people to stop moaning about a service that, truly, costs them very little, compared to the value they gain from it (a bit like complaining that a Waitrose large coffee will now cost you the extortionate sum of 20p) – but I both admit and believe should cost them nothing, under an enlightened Government. It may also be what it takes for us to realize how little of what we pay actually makes it through to the pockets of those we entrust with our young children’s care; and how undervalued they are. It seems, though, that at the beginning and end of our lives, not only is care not really valued (often being provided by the lowest bidder), but neither are we.

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