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We need working conditions in the childcare sector to improve, for both staff and the children they care for, says Professor Helen Penn


The Government published the SEED report into the quality of childcare last December. The report concluded that higher qualifications, staff development and support, and lower staff turnover were associated with higher quality provision. There are indeed problems, all along the line.

There are now many types of qualifications, and many providers of training, some good, some on the cowboy end. Outside of local authority employment, qualifications are not usually linked to pay entitlements or career progression, which means there is not much incentive any longer to obtain them. 

Apprenticeship-based qualifications, indeed any childcare qualifications, raise all sorts of issues about transferability; what are qualifications are worth outside the industry, or even outside a given workplace? Not surprisingly, there are increasing numbers of staff without any qualifications at all.

Qualifications, or the lack of them, are the tip of the iceberg. The biggest problem that nurseries now face is the high turnover of staff and the difficulties of recruitment, especially of qualified staff. Very little is discussed about what might cause such a shortage of staff. Low pay, poor conditions of service, lack of career prospects, a stressful working environment, the lack of representation and support are obvious contenders. In Australia, for example, there is currently a nationwide strike of childcare workers, the third in a year, led by the union, United Voice. About 100,000 childcare workers, a majority of the workforce, have joined in. As one childcare worker put it 'We’re not just kind ladies who look after the children. We believe in our rights.'

Now two new international surveys are trying to provide better information about exactly what it is childcare staff are expected to do, and how they are rewarded for it - their job descriptions, pay, working conditions and career prospects. In the USA, the National Academy of Sciences has just carried out a USA wide survey of working conditions in childcare, which highlights the precariousness and vulnerability of childcare work, and the low esteem in which it is held. It points out the urgent need for action for better pay and conditions for staff. 

In Europe, a new European survey, based at the University of Leuven, is also trying to explore what it means financially and in terms of status, to be a childcare worker, especially in those countries like the UK where privatisation and company provision have become so widespread over the last 10-15 years.

The Leuven survey, which is comparing childcare work in several European countries, wants to find out how childcare staff see their work tasks, and if and how they feel rewarded by what they do. For instance, do they feel badly treated or experience high levels of burn-out and stress, and if so, how does this impact on children?  The staff who work in childcare may have their own families to care for as well as their daily work. A working day can already be emotionally exhausting for practitioners and children, so how can they balance home and work life effectively, especially when hours are long and pay is poor.  What kind of help and support are available to staff if they want to negotiate different working conditions? Is it a case of ‘put up and shut up’ or do they have an independent voice or redress through a union or some other organisation, if anything goes wrong?

Are there some places of work or types of work where the pressures on staff are particularly stressful? Around 52,000 staff work for private company chains, where the head office may be remote from workplace - or even in another country as with two of the biggest chains. What happens if a nursery is sold or taken over by another company? Do the staff have any kind of say? Do they have any kind of board representation – a policy which Theresa May at one time said she wanted all British companies to adopt for their workers.

The promotional literature from the property and management companies who handle acquisitions - the buying and selling of nurseries- rarely makes mention of the staff who work in the nurseries. There are currently 462 nurseries up for sale on one website alone! That is approximately 6-8000 staff who will be transferred or made redundant. Who represents their interests?

About 50 years ago, the famous psychologist Barbara Tizard said that childcare workers who have little autonomy in their jobs, and who feel powerless to change anything, will pass their sense of powerlessness on to the children they care for. Disempowered childcare workers who feel they have no say in or control over their working lives, are not a good recipe for the future. It is high time these workforce issues are raised again. It is happening elsewhere. Why not here?

Helen Penn is Visiting Professor at the Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, University College, London.

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