Confidentiality is a matter that creeps into many aspects of childcare, says Mary Evans
One young woman's fond memories of working as a nanny turned into the parents' worst nightmare when an account of domestic doings in 10 Downing Street was leaked to a Sunday newspaper.
Cherie Blair took swift legal action to prevent the press publicising the book written by her former nanny Ros Mark. As the Blairs stressed they would do 'whatever it takes' to protect their children's privacy, a repentant Ros curtailed her writing career.
The episode, dubbed 'nannygate', was dismissed by some commentators as trivial. But it shocked the childcare profession, prompting many nursery managers and owners to use the Blairs' experience as a reminder to staff about the importance of observing confidentiality.
As one nursery manager put it, 'Parents employ us to care for their children, and while we are doing that, they expect us to protect their privacy. She let down our profession.'
Employers routinely include a confidentiality clause in employment contracts. The sample contract in the National Day Nurseries Association's recruitment and selection pack lists behaviour deemed to be gross misconduct, which could lead to summary dismissal, including, 'Breach of confidence, that is the divulging of confidential information relating to the nursery, its employees or customers to any third party'.
The sample contract for nannies, issued by the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses, states, 'It is a condition of employment that now and at all times in the future, save as may be lawfully required, the employee shall keep the affairs and concerns of the householder and its transaction and business confidential.'
Anita Huckle, proprietor of Orchard Barns Kindergarten in Colchester, Essex, says, 'The commonest confidentiality problem facing nursery staff is biting.
One child bites another and both parents have to be told privately, but the staff must not disclose the identity of the biter to the parents of the bitten child.
'Nursery staff are often young girls so you have to teach them how to cope. They tend to be very good about protecting privacy when there has been a major event - such as when a couple has split up or there has been some other trauma in a child's life.
'But we remind them in training to be careful about the little things too. Parents naturally get upset if they learn that something about their child has been passed on to another parent. People are very competitive over their children. You can't say to one parent that another child has had a bad day, even if they are friends.'
Anita Huckle has a rule that staff must not talk about the children or their parents in front of their charges, however young they might be. 'It is just good practice to watch what you say, even in front of the very young ones. It would be so easy to slip into this sort of bad habit.'
Sometimes parents want to protect their child's identity, perhaps because of an ongoing custody battle and, therefore, do not want the child photographed either for Ofsted reports or school publicity material. 'We ask parents to sign a disclaimer if they don't want their child photographed and then strictly observe their request,' she says.
Computers and conversations
Establishments where parents routinely help out have to take special care over confidentiality. Susan Humphries, head teacher of Coombes County Infant and Nursery School, near Reading, says, 'In the staff room, as staff meet we never discuss the children. We have an open school and we want parents to come and work alongside us and feel welcome in the staff room. We take the same view in the corridors and elsewhere in the school. We wouldn't say "don't forget so-and-so is on free school meals now", as that might make a piece of conversational mileage for someone. We don't discuss the individual children in the staff room and only do so when we meet in team meetings or staff meetings.'
Susan Humphries further protects the parents and children's privacy by ensuring that confidential information is only held on the computer for which a password is needed. Sarah Owen, managing director of the Toad Hall Nursery Group, warns staff that any breach of confidentiality would involve disclosing information held on the company's computer system and would, therefore, be a breach of the Data Protection Act. 'I explain that we are registered under the Act and we would be liable and the individual concerned would also be liable,' she says.
The group runs eight nurseries at sites west of London, including the film studios at Shepperton and Pinewood. The staff know that a breach of confidentiality by going to the press with tales about the children of celebrities making films there, or even divulging whose children were at the nursery, would lead to dismissal. Sarah Owen is also fiercely protective of her company's commercial confidentiality.
'We are buying other nurseries and it is important that if our staff overhear conversations about transactions they don't repeat them. If someone breached confidentiality in a way which jeopardised the business I would take them to court.
'My background is in healthcare where confidentiality is paramount and I instill that in our staff. We use role play and personalising of experiences in training to get the message across. We even have a notice by the telephone to remind staff to be careful. For example, we had a wife ring us to say she had forgotten her husband's mobile number and could we give it to her and we said no. For all we knew they could just have split up and he didn't want her to have the number. We explain our policy to the parents and it reassures them.
'We bought a nursery where parents organising birthday parties were given other children's addresses and telephone numbers. I was horrified and put a stop to it. The parents can send in invitations and we will distribute them or they can speak to the other parents in person.'
Sandra Hutchinson, proprietor of the Primley Park Nurseries group in Leeds, teaches her staff to deflect nosy questions asked by parents. 'It would be easy for a young nursery nurse to let something slip in the course of a chat with a parent.
'I operate on a need-to-know basis, so if a child has a health problem or difficulties at home, the staff most involved would know and that is it. We have a strict rule that if a member of staff notices some marks on a child, they will talk to me and nobody else and I handle it.'
A different sort of situation occurred when Sandra Hutchinson found that her confidentiality was broken after a student on work assignment took away a copy of the nursery's written policies and showed them to another establishment. 'Those policies had taken me many hours and a lot of research and you can imagine how I felt when I saw them in another nursery. When I write something up now I always mark it copyright.'
A quiet word
Rosemary Murphy, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, says there are times when a nursery can know more about a family's circumstances than the parents' relations or friends know. 'Staff need to be able to discuss their concerns and problems with their senior colleagues so that they do not go home and chatter about them,' she says. 'You can have a situation, say, where a child is collected every Thursday by his or her father and it is obvious that he spends the afternoon in the pub. The nursery nurse should be able to report her concerns to a senior colleague who can have a quiet word.'
Nurseries, it seems, should never underestimate the importance of confidentiality, as breaches can affect a nursery even a after a member of staff has left. Anita Huckle says, 'There can be problems when staff leave and start a new job. They will perhaps let something slip when chatting casually with their new colleagues. It has not happened to us because my staff tend to stay, but I know it is a problem.'