Minding the gap

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Staff training in 2002 will continue to be an added hurdle for early years managers as they struggle to deliver high quality childcare in a sector undergoing rapid expansion and wide-ranging reforms.

Nurseries are finding they have to make up the skills shortage among newly recruited staff with extra training and funded courses. Mary Evans reports

Staff training in 2002 will continue to be an added hurdle for early years managers as they struggle to deliver high quality childcare in a sector undergoing rapid expansion and wide-ranging reforms.

Nursery owners and managers contacted by Nursery World express concern about the calibre of candidates applying for jobs. Tracy Seed, childcare director of the Saplings chain, says, 'We used to get a much higher number of school leaver applicants, many of whom had C grades in English and maths. Now fewer apply to us and fewer have achieved C grade GCSEs. Qualified staff don't appear to have the same level of professionalism that they had in the past.'

Sandra Hutchinson, proprietor of the Leeds-based Primley Park Children's Nurseries chain, has witnessed the same trend. She says, 'I have noticed that the academic ability of girls going on the courses is much lower now than it was ten years ago.'

Employers report broadly similar problems when analysing the skills gap. Tracy Seed says, 'Staff require greater management input than ever before to ensure that they have the skills and knowledge required to carry out their work with children.' She cites the main areas of weakness as lack of knowledge of health and safety, plus inability to use their own initiative and explore new ideas.

Lynne Walden, owner of the Ferndene Lodge Day Nursery in Darlington, says, 'The main weakness is a lack of knowledge of the educational side of things. They know all about the care aspects like changing nappies and wiping noses, and they know about communicating with parents and being bright and smiley, but when it come to planning activities with the children they are floundering.'

Jacintha Wake, proprietor of Bolland Hall Day Nursery in Morpeth, says, 'They don't always have the underpinning knowledge about child ren. They can be experienced at working in a group but don't understand the basics of child development and what children do at different stages.'

Sandra Hutchinson adds, 'I think they learn about child development in a very theoretical way, but they do not seem to understand how to facilitate a child's learning, or how to sit down with a child and go through an activity.

'If I was teaching nursery nurses at college about arts and crafts, I would set up the tutorial room as an art room and get them to do the activities so they could experience what they are going to be facilitating children to do.'

Samantha Tomlin, human resources manager of the Child Base chain, adds, 'Some of the young people coming in don't seem to have the work ethic and the degree of respect and responsibility you would expect.'

Lynne Walden also identifies a basic lack of knowledge in the ways of the world of work. 'No-one seems to have explained to them about what is involved in going out to work - how you need to be on time for the start of your shift, what your pay slip will look like, even the fact that tax will be deducted from their pay.'

She sets aside a budget of around 1,500 for training and next year wants to arrange assertiveness training for herself and her staff to improve communications and problem-solving.

She wants to develop services for the under-twos but is having difficulty finding good courses. 'The local authority courses are ring-fenced and funding only starts for courses from the Foundation Stage upwards, and they really cannot use their money for courses on younger children.'

Chains such as Saplings and Child Base identify training needs through their appraisal schemes. Tracy Seed says, 'All staff have individual training plans and annual performance appraisals. Internal audits are conducted and the results influence our annual training targets and the training we offer when we close for a week during June for staff development.

'Our training budget is continuously increasing. Currently, we fund the majority of training ourselves. Centrally-funded places for young people on training schemes have been reduced and EYDCP funds pay for staff to attend training that is quite general, not necessarily covering specifically what we need as a company. Often staff who have attended events funded by EYDCPs have commented that they learned nothing new.'

'There is an urgent funding requirement for older people wanting to qualify. We cannot afford to employ these unqualified women, who are normally only able to work part-time, but we could train them and provide work placements if we were paid to do this.'

Child Base has mandatory refresher courses on key topics such as first aid, fire protection, child protection and food hygiene, and has a monitoring system to alert managers when an individual's certificate of competence in any of these areas is about to expire so they will need re-training. Early years co-ordinators, all qualified teachers, work with groups of three or four nurseries and advise on staff training.

Samantha Tomlin says Child Base also operates a programme for developing the managers of the future on a year-long NVQ 4 training scheme. 'Staff who are doing exceptionally well are encouraged to apply. The course covers management issues like how to budget, how to give presentations and handling difficult customers.'

Single-site settings can also conduct a skills audit. Jacintha Wake organised a staff training and skills audit to help her plan a programme for next year. 'I got the idea when the local partnership helped me to go on a management training course. I made a contact there and invited them in to the nursery to do the audit for me. They interviewed all the staff individually and got some background on the nursery.

'I was surprised by one member of staff. She has been here six years and we communicate really well with each other. She is very arty-crafty and told the auditor she would really like to do art therapy training but has never discussed that with me. Getting in someone from outside meant the staff felt they could discuss things freely.'

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