written by Claire Kenyon (senior)
I was delighted to be invited to a lively debate at the London Metropolitan University last weekend. Joining Neil Leitch, Louise O’Hare and myself on the panel were three incredible women who had organised a strike in 1984 to improve their working conditions and pay. Risking their homes by choosing to strike with no pay, these extraordinary women had parents joining them on the picket line, and children playing in the council offices. It was huge disruption. It was bold and brave. It made a difference.
Sadly, it seems like the attitude to working with children has changed little over the past forty years. Above all, these campaigners are feminists, and the anger that ‘women’s roles’ continue to be undervalued was palpable. But why does this continue to be the case forty years on?
To be clear, my own insistence that we should be talking about Early Childhood Development has not changed. Professionals working with young children who are trained and knowledgeable about brain development, language development, intentional play and the huge amount of theory that supports the early years are distinct from babysitters. Childcare is babysitting, Early Childhood Development is a profession which necessarily requires care. As does teaching. As does being a doctor or a nurse. All of these professions are increasingly undervalued in society, and according to the British Journal of General Practice, while women now form more than half of the GP workforce, they continue to hold less senior roles.
It’s interesting isn’t it? We all feel frustrated at the lack of value shown to those in the ‘caring industries’, and the fact that it’s because these are largely feminised workforces. However, there is still the feeling that these services should still be carried out as not-for-profits, charities, social enterprises and parent-run/community-run/state-run organisations. As I saw on Saturday, this culture can be unwittingly perpetuated by women themselves, which leads to the unintentional desecration of one of the only areas that women have been able to have successful, small businesses. Why is it so distasteful that women should be able to make an independent living from offering a good service that they're passionate about? And for the majority it is just a living at the end of the day - for some it’s a comfortable one, for some it’s less than minimum wage and it NEVER comes without a lot of very hard work, risk-taking and personal sacrifice. It’s really not private jet and a chalet-in-Verbier territory! People need water, food and energy, yet there is no suggestion that either of these things should be provided for free. But children? No profit allowed unless it’s clothes, shoes, haircuts or theme parks. Anything except ‘care’. I think getting to the WHY of this is essential.
Caring roles are somehow seen as for the public good. And they are. But wouldn’t care be so much better if the people who were doing the caring were well-paid professionals who were continuously trained and mentored? If they weren’t over-worked and stressed to the point of ill-health (like an increasing number of nursery owners, doctors, teachers etc). If society valued these professionals then more people would opt to choose these jobs. It’s not a coincidence that we have a recruitment crisis in all of these areas. How can we afford this with UK debt at 100.5% of GDP? I wish I had the answer.
In my nearest city, the council-run, money-hoovering nursery with its eye-wateringly expensive, specially-designed outdoor area has closed. The resources were state-of the art, chosen by idealist council workers from the poshest and most expensive catalogues. The cleaning would have been carried out by Serco, whose share-holders benefitted from £188m in profit from just the first half of 2023. Private settings do their own cleaning at a fraction of the cost. Usually the owner is doing the garden, mowing the lawn, and clearing out the drainpipes. They also shop around for the best value cleaning products and imaginative toys. Nothing is wasted - there’s not enough margin for this. This is why the state-run settings have closed, and the private ones have managed to tread water.
Yet there has never been any money for those private settings making it work to expand spaces or further improve their offering. In fact, when I applied for a capital grant (a time-consuming and joyless task), at the end of the process I was told that nurseries were SPECIFICALLY excluded from grants because they were in receipt of public money. Seriously? The spaces allocated to funded children are propped up by those who pay fees. Without those who pay fees, I would have to close. And in fact it is not me that benefits in any way from this money. To be in receipt of it actually COSTS me money. This is a benefit for the children and parents. This is the harsh reality which will continue to be the case for WHOEVER is running settings. We have already had locally-run community settings. They were called playgroups or preschools and they largely closed because they were run by volunteers and unregulated. The arrival of OFSTED, the EYFS and the general uptick in quality and qualifications has changed the landscape. These settings couldn’t afford to continue. With the current funding arrangements there will always need to be someone working for nothing. At the moment, that’s a lot of owners. Lots of them women.
This brings me back to the first point. Are women perpetuating this? Maybe they are. Women in their local communities want to do good things for children. What better than a not-for-profit or a social enterprise ‘childcare facility’? As far as the government is concerned these are an absolute winner. All of a sudden, settings will be able to access money from charities, businesses and social funds - meaning that they can continue to underfund settings as they are propped up in other ways and run by volunteers. Accessing this money can be a full-time job. Will this be the job that’s done for free? Will it be done by a woman? If we have increasing numbers of not-for-profits and social enterprises asking for donations, things could get competitive.
And if they want to do a good job, they will NEED more money than the government gives them because it’s not enough. Neil Leitch, of the Early Years Alliance (a charity) told us the sobering tale of the huge number of settings he has had to close over the past few years - two thirds of their settings are gone. These were settings that didn’t charge for extras - and it simply wasn’t enough for them to stay solvent. It’s certainly not enough to pay outstanding staff and graduates. It’s not enough to pay the holiday pay, sick pay and national insurance contributions. It’s not enough to pay rent, power, water, food (no packed lunches - nut allergies are rife). I don’t know about others, but since Covid 19, we now have a member of staff who spends most of their time counselling parents or going to safeguarding meetings. They will need cover for that. Plus the cook, gardener, cleaner, admin person, manager and deputy manager. At the moment it is likely that at least one of these roles is carried out by the owner, probably two, or maybe three or four if it’s a small single-site setting. I have seen idealistic suggestions that parents volunteer a few days a week in settings to help staff them. I can almost hear the collective gasp of horror and disbelief from the EY sector! This is cringingly, naively ignorant of children’s needs and development and could in fact be quite damaging in terms of attachment. Unless of course the parent plans to volunteer to be there every day. For a couple of years at least. And train in early childhood development.
AND we’re still suggesting that the work is done for nothing.
Are we, in fact undervaluing care by taking this approach and perpetuating the idea that care is something that should, ideally, be done for free? And that really, ANYONE with a bit of free time would be suitable to do it. I fear that as long as we promote this idea, then the government will continue to exploit it. After all, it doesn’t really WANT to have to pay the proper amount for all those children! It just wanted to win more votes. The government doesn’t have any money! Birmingham, Hackney, Slough, Northamptonshire, Thurrock, Croydon and Woking have gone bankrupt, with 30% of councils in total at risk of bankruptcy. If the government continues to print money to pay for all the ‘free’ things that are increasingly undervalued, then inflation will continue to get worse. This is the financial landscape that we are handing to our children.
What we NEED is to go back to a system where the money follows the child, and is visible to parents as a quantifiable amount. This reinforces the idea that they are buying a service that is worth having. It needs to be means-tested as per the Netherlands and Australia. Most wealthy parents are happy to pay - especially for good quality. The taxpayer simply can’t afford to pay for something worth having for every single child under five, but a staggered means-tested approach would create a fairer system with more money coming into the sector to pay staff properly and provide genuinely high quality places for ALL children. And frankly if the settings are no good, people will vote with their feet and go elsewhere. As far as I can tell, what the government is doing for ‘free’ at the moment is shoving too many children into overcrowded classrooms before they’re ready and hoping the walls don’t fall down. The UK’s obsession with everything for free is turning us into a third world country where services are shockingly bad.
A word about the new coalition. Is there someone on the coalition who is going to protect the hugely valuable resource of small, privately-owned day nurseries? I am quite nervous that apart from the Early Years Alliance and the NDNA it all seems very weighted towards a social model - lovely in theory, but unrealistic, and potentially ruinous for lots of settings. Nurseries in Canada have essentially been stolen from their owners which is a real concern for many of us. The following articles (the initial theft of private settings followed by the fall-out) should be a warning for us all.
There are some outstanding social enterprises - LEYF being an excellent example of this. It’s important to acknowledge that this is run by a tireless, active leader who is hugely knowledgeable about pedagogy, networking and fundraising. These people are one in a million - they’re certainly not available in every community, even if we’d like them to be. But those whose living depends on providing an excellent service for children and families ARE in every community. They don’t leave because they’ve got a promotion. They are reliable for the long-term, self-responsible and manage their businesses without dependence on the government. They are the life-blood of the early years sector and they are community businesses. I’m hugely confident that if a prospective parent visits one of the big chain nurseries and my nursery then they will choose mine. That’s because my setting is my responsibility and I do everything in my power to make it the best place for a child to spend their early years. I’m getting older, and there needs to be new, younger blood coming into the sector with the same passion, but this is becoming less likely as only those with economy of scale are able to function. If we want to stop the ‘land-grab’ of the big corporates, we have to stop putting small businesses in the same box. Private businesses do not have to answer to share-holders. This means parents and government not having a tantrum about hardworking individuals making a living. Otherwise what choice will we have other than to sell our failing settings to them.
Finally, a sobering article in The Guardian this week highlights the folly of spending billions of pounds on unproven projects to the detriment of what exists already, with new build free schools costing almost £1m per year versus the £26K spent on existing schools. We all know how that ended.