Opinion: To The Point - Cost of blame culture

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Back in 2008 when I conducted a series of interviews with nursery workers and teachers I was genuinely shocked to discover just how much their world had changed.

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I had naively assumed that a nursery was much the same kind of institution that I knew in the 1990s when I handed my infant son to the care of the staff at our nursery. What I did not grasp was that, in the interim, the nursery had become one of the most intensely regulated institutions in the world.

The nursery professionals whom I talked to all loved their work. Many of them regarded their job as their chosen vocation and it was apparent that they were devoted to the youngsters in their care. However, their enthusiasm for their vocation co-existed with a deep sense of unease about the way that their work was subjected to an intrusive regime of regulation.

Many of the nursery workers I talked to made it clear that they were expected to organise their work around the imperative of inspection, which meant that form-filling and box-ticking had acquired a far too prominent role in their life. One newly appointed child-carer told me, 'I did not sign up for this job to become a clerk.' Another worker informed me that she was quitting her chosen vocation because 'I cannot be myself in this job'. She added, 'I no longer feel comfortable about acting on my gut feelings.' When I asked why, it was evident that her capacity to exercise professional judgement was thwarted by the Byzantine system of inspection and regulation in early years childcare.

Fear of litigation

In part, the expansion of target-focused procedure in the nursery is driven by the micro-management ambition of Government. The expansion of targets, including learning targets for the under-fives is an example of official social engineering in action. Some policy makers argue that the micro-regulation of the nursery is necessary to avoid litigation. They believe that keeping careful records, documenting anything that moves and the scrupulous attention to procedure protects the nursery from frivolous compensation claims.

As our study, The Social Cost of Litigation, argues, compensation culture actually thrives in an environment dominated by process. Yes, litigation culture does represent a significant threat to nursery education. A culture that incites parents to interpret every small untoward event that their child experiences as an opportunity to blame and seek financial redress helps create a climate of mistrust.

Experience indicates that the fear of litigation encourages the growth of a process dominated work environment, which in turn has a corrosive impact on nursery workers. Invariably the defensive practices that nurseries and schools adopt inhibit professionals in exercising their judgment and deprive children of the quality of care they deserve. Consequently, best practice is now defined as checking all the boxes in a quality assurance form rather than doing what is best for the children.

Detrimental to children

Many policy makers are simply not aware that petty regulation and litigation culture reinforce one another and conspire to distract many nursery professionals from getting on with their job. A relatively small institution like a nursery is forced to devote a disproportionally large amount of its resources to deal with a compensation claim. It only takes one letter of complaint from a lawyer to turn the life of a nursery upside-down.

Candy, the head-teacher of a nursery school in Sussex, discussed with us the impact of defending a recent case where a child had an accident while on nursery premises. In what she describes as a fishing trip by the claimants' lawyers, trying to find evidence of liability, the nursery school had received several letters demanding copies of policies, risk assessments and so on. 'Every time we get one of these letters, it's at least a week's work,' she says.

Despite the claim that process and the threat of litigation holds professionals to account, it has the opposite outcome. It disorients the work of the nursery by encouraging professionals to watch their back at the expense of doing what they think is best for the children in their care. The only policies that a nursery should have are ones that promote the quality of children's experience and not ones designed to avoid being sued.

  • Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at the University of Kent. The Social Cost of Litigation is available from the Centre for Policy Studies, www.cps.org.uk.
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