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Get the inspectors out of our nurseries

Government regulation of childcare is making life difficult for parents, children and carers.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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What do you want from your child’s nursery? A secure, affectionate environment run by people who know and like children, or a bureaucratic hell-hole where you are kept neatly updated with your toddler’s educational progress, by a coterie of highly-qualified staff who keep the kids at arm’s length and react to a high temperature or a display of bad behaviour by picking up the phone and telling you to come and get them?

For most parents, I would imagine this is a rhetorical question. When you drop off your little children at their nursery or childminder (mine are five months old, and two-and-a-bit), you don’t want them to come home able to count to 100. You want to know that they will have fun, not just be safe; that when they fall, they will be somehow comforted; that when they misbehave, they will be somehow reprimanded; and that when they become suddenly ill – as children do – they will be given something to help them.

But for the authorities, it seems like quite a different set of criteria apply. Childcare is under increasing pressure to change its priorities, so that box-ticking and back-covering count for more than confidence and common sense. Vetted to within an inch of their lives, subjected to all manner of formal inspections, and expected to play the combined role of schoolteacher, social worker, child psychologist and hyper-efficient bureaucrat, those young women who used to be called ‘nursery nurses’, who worked with children just because they liked them and were good at the job, are burdened under a whole load of contradictory expectations. Isn’t it time someone put a stop to this nonsense?

Enter Olive Rack. On 26 September this year, magistrates cleared Mrs Rack, a nursery owner for over 20 years, after being accused by two council inspectors of assault. Her ‘crime’? She disciplined a toddler – who had just hit a baby on the head – by leading her by the arm and putting her on a ‘naughty chair’. The toddler’s mother had agreed with Rack’s actions; the inspectors did not, and Rack was consequently suspended for a year (1). Now she has been vindicated, and the case has sparked some welcome discussion about the daftness of various childcare regulations: everything from refusing to allow nurseries to dispense Calpol or cough medicine without prescription or prior written consent, to the incompatibility of concerns about touching children with the basic need to change nappies and give them a cuddle.

‘Since I opened in 1987 the red tape and regulations have grown. There are more and more rules, to the point where they are actually strangling the nurseries. It’s certainly detrimental to the children, it’s spread to their lives as well,’ Rack told the Sunday Times (2). It turns out that she first clashed with inspectors more than a decade ago, by refusing to demote one of her staff who had no formal childcare qualifications: ‘She was brilliant at her job but in the end she lost confidence because of all the nitpicking,’ says Rack.

These are good points well made; and the ‘PC gone mad’ element of childcare bureaucracy, upon which much of the commentary has focused (3), is certainly due a trouncing. But the problem goes deeper than red tape and accreditation-mania. The formalisation of childcare is steadily undermining the confidence and trust that is essential for parents, children and childcarers alike.

As an example: my children’s nursery recently underwent an Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) inspection, and it was a gruelling thing to watch. Suddenly, staff working in this lovely, warm, relaxed environment were put on edge, their spontaneous confidence dulled by the scrutiny. After dropping off my baby and toddler on day two, the inspector ‘canvassed’ me at the door. Did I know my children’s key-worker? Was I familiar with the complaints procedure? Did I think anything could be improved?

As I talked about how brilliant the nursery was, her eyes glazed over – and I suppose this was no surprise. Because there is no space in these formal procedures for indicating the positive, intangible things you really value about your children’s nursery: the easy affection and no-nonsense approach of the staff; that if they phone you to request more nappies, the first thing they tell you is that your kids are fine, so you don’t visualise them being rushed to the hospital; that ‘compress and cuddle’ is given as a treatment for a minor tumble.

Indeed, many of the things that we parents so value when leaving our little children in the care of a nursery or childminder are now increasingly seen as suspicious, and in need of further documentation and procedure. This undermines childcare staff, who do a brilliant job for little money; it threatens to have a bad impact on the children, who at that age need confidence and cuddles like nothing else; and it is an insult to us, the parents. We don’t need an Ofsted report to tell us what our children’s nursery or childminder is like – we see it day in, day out, and if we don’t like something we deal with it. When official inspectors come through the door, it is as though we are being judged too.

The upshot of all this is to create an environment that is tense at best, with everybody encouraged to second-guess what they should be doing, rather than just focusing on looking after the kids.

What purpose is served by this regulation? The authorities would argue that this ever-tighter process of inspection and standard-setting is for the benefit of the parents – that it will help us to have confidence that our children are receiving ‘quality’ care. But aside from the fact that parents may not share Ofsted’s standards, in its own terms this process is flawed. ‘Good’ nurseries and childminders that pass the test are put on the defensive by the inspection process, and forced to adopt policies and procedures with which they may not agree. In other words, doing well at inspection is no protection. And those that don’t pass? They just get shut down.

According to the Sunday Times, Ofsted closed down 11 nurseries and childminders last year, and suspended a further 30. Maybe these were shabby establishments – who knows? But we should remember what we are dealing with here. Childcare for very young children is, for the most part, privately owned and privately funded by the parents. It is also very scarce: unlike the state school system from primary education onwards, where a place does exist for every child somewhere, there is no guarantee that parents wanting daycare for their pre-schoolers will be able to get it.

Daycare isn’t even publicly funded, unlike schools. This begs two questions. What business has Ofsted, the body set up to inspect publicly-funded compulsory schooling, in inspecting private nurseries anyway? And if Ofsted doesn’t like what it sees, what is going to happen to those parents who rely on the childcare they, after all, have chosen?

It happens that the bureaucratisation and ‘nitpicking’ described by Olive Rack has coincided with an increasing expectation that women go back to full-time work after their children are born. So just at the point when there is a huge demand for daycare, the authorities seem hell-bent on making it less accessible, not more.

The shame of this is that there is a clear role for the government in the provision of childcare – greater subsidies, or even state-run nurseries, so that there are more places, which are more affordable for parents, and at the same time allowing nursery nurses, those very badly-paid unsung heroes of the childcare sector, to be paid more. It’s not rocket science. It’s just common sense.

Jennie Bristow is a freelance writer living in Kent, and editor of Abortion Review.

(1) Nursery owner tells of relief after being cleared of toddler assault, Daily Telegraph, 29 September 2006; Routine inspection that set wheels in motion, Daily Telegraph, 29 September 2006

(2) At the mercy of the anti-discipline police, Sunday Times, 1 October 2006

(3) Lunatics have taken over the nurseries, Daily Telegraph, 29 September 2006

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Topics Politics

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