Low Wages for Nursery Workers

This article first appeared in Nursery Management Today but has been reviewed and updated by the author.

This last year it has been acknowledged that a number of day nursery workers, particularly in the private sector, are paid at lower than national minimum wages.

Starting salaries for unqualified teachers are £17,000 or £20,000; for inner London for qualified teachers, £20,000+;  advanced teachers get about £30,000. By contrast senior nursery officers and managers can earn around £15,000 to £20,000; nursery managers get £20,000 if lucky.

This is no new phenomenon and has been obvious to those who asked the right questions. It’s a bit like having an eccentric aunt; only when outsiders come to visit and remark on her strange behaviour is it brought home to the rest of her relations that eating biscuits out of the dog bowl or making a sound like a cuckoo every time the hour chimes probably isn’t ‘normal’, but when you live with it, it appears absolutely sane.

Poor Pay in Child Care

 Low child care wages have been a historical fact of life since women have been paid to look after other people’s children. In my opinion there are several reasons for this:

  • Predominantly female occupation
  • Poor professional support systems
  • Lack of motivation to improve professional knowledge and skills on part of child care workers
  • The reluctance of unqualified, low-paid workers to initiate an improvement in their profile
  • A deficit of available money to pay workers without raising child care fees.

Child care workers remain traditionally female.

This often means, unfortunately, that the status and recognition of the profession is poor and in some cases, non-existent. Child care is still not recognised as a real profession and certainly not one with promotional prospects and respectable salaries. Where the workforce is majority female, there is a lack of militant attitude. It is assumed that what most women want is to get paid for a job that comes ‘naturally’ to them, i.e. looking after children. Whilst I am sure this is the case for a small number of women, there has been a change in the type of professional coming into the child care industry. There are more men and again, we battle with the stereotype of suspicion that any man wishing to work with very young children is a potential abuser or is gay. Whatever their motivation, they can’t be ‘normal’. 

‘Six months ago the Government launched a campaign to attract new childcare workers — especially men, ethnic minorities and the disabled. It commended local authorities for finding creative ways of targeting male workers, for example through ads at football grounds. Just one small step from chanting “Ere we go” to singing “Humpty Dumpty”? Of course caring men make good role models, but how many nice guys with the right skills will be persuaded to work for peanuts because local authorities tell them that it’s “Cool2Care” (the name of a campaign advertised by Wandsworth in the Chelsea Football Club Community Development brochure)? A DfES sample advertisement for getting the men into childcare campaign begins: “Danny worked as a blacksmith, sandwich maker and labourer before becoming unemployed. He then started a career in childcare….”www.timesonline.co.uk. 17 Jan 2006

The idea, presumably, is to illustrate that a man can be both rugged and caring. But, to a new parent, 28-year-old Danny’s CV reflects a progressive lowering of aspirations; and it’s an alarming thought that we are desperately seeking football fans, or unemployed blokes who have no other options, to raise the next generation while mothers get on with being economically productive. And if you’re a mum sorrowfully leaving your baby in a noisy nursery, you’d probably prefer to hand her to a soothing replica of yourself. There is also, of course, that other unspoken fear about the category of men most obviously attracted to a low-paid job looking after small children.

Women with ambition are entering an industry where its workforce has been happy to muddle along. This was fine up to the last ten years or so, when a whirlwind of reform smashed complacency in child care to smithereens.

Union Support : PANN

The support for child care workers was, in the main, tagged onto other unions. This has changed over these latter years, now most of the larger unions have a section for care and child care workers. The only professional body representing nursery workers is PANN*.

This professional organisation began in the 1980s and set out to offer professional support to anyone working in child care. PANN emphasised strongly that it wouldn’t ever advocate strikes. It was the only representation exclusively for nursery workers for a long time. It is keen to raise and maintain high standards in child care and the code of practice stresses the need to acknowledge the importance of the child first and foremost. Its membership currently is around 5,500. 

As in any other caring profession, workers put the needs of their clients before their own. Patients will always be nursed; elderly people will be fed and cleaned; the terminally ill will be offered gentle care and respect in their final days. Children will be nurtured and encouraged and educated. Some of the bigger unions now have sections within their organisations for child care workers and they demonstrate a growing understanding of the importance of the job of looking after children. Inevitably there will always be a strong cohort of individuals who do this work because they love being with and relating to children and for them, any money is a bonus.

Career-long Training

One of the real difficulties in the child care profession is that too many people gain a first qualification and feel that they don’t need to do anything else. They know all they need to know to look after children, to stimulate them and guide them and encourage them to reach their potential. There is a lethargy within some child care professionals that makes those who see the importance of regular professional updating and skill-learning feel frustrated.
There should never be a time when professional nursery workers think they know everything about children. If that were the case, there would be no need for further research and development and hundreds of academic authors would be out of work. Children are still one of the most untapped sources of information about the human condition.

We need to know exactly how children learn to speak, we need more information into the effects of indifferent and inconsistent care; we must strive to find ways of engaging all children so that they do reach their potential in later life. I spent a professional lifetime training and educating child care professionals. I visited many colleges and training organisations, moderating training and work to maintain high standards across the country. I know how much information and guidance trainees were given. I visited them in training placement and in the majority of instances, and I was delighted to give glowing and honest references about my students. There are some from those days who have gone on to make a real impact in the professional child care industry. I am proud to have played some part in their journey.

There were others, however, who within a few months of qualifying and gaining employment, appeared to forget everything they had been taught. At extremes, there have been incidents of serious breaches of confidentiality; there have been accusations of dangerous behaviour towards children. The worst from my point of view is the systematic indifference to the child. The acknowledgement of the importance of children within our society has hit an all-time high.

Legislation and Government Guidance

The Children Act 1989* was the first piece of significant legislation to acknowledge that above all else, the welfare of the child is paramount. From 1991 there was a shift in attitudes and expectations about the care, education and protection of children. Since that time, there have been several innovative strategies, such as Sure Start* and Birth to Three Matters*; the Foundation Curriculum*; Every Child Matters* and the Children Act 2004*.
There is an emphasis on inclusion and a real recognition of the importance of play at all ages. Yet there are still those reluctant and recalcitrant individuals whose attitudes and behaviour seep through a nursery and taint the atmosphere and the impact of new and fresh approaches. Eventually, there will be nowhere for them to hide, but until that time, the damage they can create is overwhelming.

More than just a job

Within child care, as in any other caring sector, there are those who have been grateful to have found employment and satisfaction from carrying out support-role tasks with no responsibility. They usually have no confidence in their academic ability and probably didn’t do well in school, or have been out of the workforce for a long time raising their own families. It isn’t always easy to step back into the workforce especially when the last paid work you did was over twenty years ago.
When National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ) were first devised, the intention was to provide an alternative professional qualification and employment route into child care work. Sometimes it is not so important to be able to write a report or spell correctly. As these qualifications have evolved, they have become more academically demanding and indeed all candidates must now be able to attain a specific standard in literacy and numeracy skills.
These demands have caused some unqualified workers to become insecure and fearful for their jobs. Their work is competent and the children love being with them. They are good, solid workers. They don’t have the confidence and sometimes don’t have the ability to gain anything other than a basic award. Where they can, they are happy to hide away and would never demand a pay rise.

The dilemma for employers, especially in a small nursery company, is how to justify holding on to such important staff members. Ofsted* have revised their inspection criteria and within this, there is an expectation that everyone will understand and acknowledge their responsibilities. Unqualified workers are not necessarily unskilled but they may be reluctant to place themselves in what they see as the vulnerable position of having to prove that they know their job. They much prefer to blend into the background.

Making Budgets Balance

Most employers do not intentionally keep their workers on low salaries. Those who own one or two nurseries are constantly struggling to make costs meet the demands of maintenance, food, heating and lighting, security and safety, and new equipment as well as salaries. Despite a number of schemes launched by the Government to provide some balance to these costs, it hasn’t really worked and some owners find that they cannot make enough money to pay their workers adequate salaries. Child care fees are rising each year as nurseries attempt to keep up with challenges and competition.

The Government funds local authorities to ensure a free part-time early education place is available for every three and four year old in settings that have been inspected by Ofsted and found satisfactory in terms of quality in England. From 1 April 2006 three and four year old children are entitled to free early years education, comprising 12.5 per week for 38 weeks of the year. Parents do not contribute towards this minimum entitlement but may be charged fees for any services or childcare that is additional to the free place.” (www.surestart.gov.uk

Where there is competition from local authority nurseries or family centres small nursery providers suffer. Even the larger companies find that in some areas the competition for older children is leading them to offer more places for babies less than one year. This in itself brings about difficulties in staffing where the ratio of workers to babies under one year is 1:3.

Increased state provision of free childcare could reduce the choice available to parents, employers say. A report from the Confederation of British Industry says the problem is the Government’s failure to limit heavily subsidised state provision. It argues this renders private and voluntary facilities uneconomic, thus reducing available places. The Department for Education and Skills says councils should focus on covering gaps in the market. ………..CBI deputy director-general John Cridland said there had to be a level playing field that allowed for all providers, otherwise reforms – which were welcome – would not work. Ministers said they wanted ‘a transparent and fair marketplace’, he said. ‘It’s time for them to make it happen. Childcare providers being forced to desert the market is the last thing anyone wants to see’."

The chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, Purnima Tanuku, said, "The duplication of childcare places and the lack of a partnership approach from some local authorities in the creation of children’s centres is endangering many day nurseries in the private and voluntary sectors." (www.new.bbc.co.uk February 2006)

Higher Standards

We are already seeing the positive effects of a better inspection process. Those nurseries which may have scraped through on the old inspection criteria are not doing well. This means that poor, and at best indifferent, day care is doomed to fail. Nursery owners, management and workers are required to provide the best support in the best way for all children they are privileged to care for. There may be some casualties along the way that could have been salvaged, but their sacrifice will be for a better cause if the standards of child care in this country are raised to consistently higher levels.

Good quality provision can only be provided by good quality workers. Positive attitudes towards professional child care are essential. Salaries and promotional prospects should reflect this new attitude towards children who are our best and most vital resources for an optimistic and successful future. Isn’t it time we started paying more attention to the care of those who hold our future in their hands?

*PANN:  The Professional Association of Nursery Nurses (PANN) is the union which cares for those who care and the only one just for childcarers.
*Children Act 1989:  implemented October 1991
*Sure Start is the Government programme to deliver the best start in life for every child.
*Every Child Matters: Change for Children is a new approach to the well-being of children and young people from birth to age 19.
*Foundation Curriculum: Introduced as a distinct phase of education for children aged 3-5 in September 2000.
*Children Act 2004 underpins Every Child Matters.

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