Editorial : The Right Workforce

In this month’s Early Years column, Valerie Jackson highlights the problems arising from employing sixteen-year-olds to work with little children in nurseries, and their need for both pre-service training and mentoring during their early months in the work.

This problem has been around for a long time. Back in the 1960s the Central Training Council in Childcare set up two-year courses leading to the Preliminary Certificate in the Residential Care of Children for very much the same reason that Valerie is now advocating training and professional support for young workers in nurseries. The dangers were then, and are now, that young people may start in this demanding work when they are too immature, without an adequate understanding of children’s needs, and perhaps with a rosily sentimental idea of what little children are like.

The work demands knowledge of child development, for example, skills in a wide variety of tasks, the ability to identify children’s needs when they cannot vocalise them other than by crying, and the ability to remain even-tempered and creative in the face of hours of competing demands. The list of necessary and desirable attributes could fill the page. It is difficult work, and needs to be undertaken professionally by trained and qualified workers.

So, in an ideal world, what sort of staff should work with such children? Young? Old? Female? Male? Minimally trained? Qualified to graduate level? A mixture? How long should workers stay in post? Two years? Ten years? What should the make-up of the workforce in a particular unit look like? What should the profession as a whole be like?

It is only when basic questions like this are asked that it becomes apparent that as a nation we have no strategy or policies in this field. The Children’s Workforce Development Council has an enormous task ahead of it in shaping the future.

As things stand, the current workforce is shaped fundamentally by the money that is available to fund children’s services. This affects the numbers of staff and their levels of pay. If funding is inadequate, as Valerie Jackson says in relation to nurseries, the pay levels will be low. There is the risk that it will be difficult to recruit the quality of staff needed and there is likely to be a high level of staff turnover, wasting the resources spent on recruitment and training.

Underlying the level of funding, though, is a more fundamental question. If society as a whole were to value child care more highly, the professionals involved would be paid more. Professionals in other established professions are often well rewarded. It is just that looking after children is not yet seen as the complex and important job that it is.

This is true not only in the nurseries of which Valerie Jackson writes, but it applies also to youth work, residential child care and other areas of work with children. There is no adequate reason for demanding that school teachers should be graduates, while those caring for children in the early years, who are more malleable and vulnerable, are not. There is no reason why nannies should be given substantial introductory training while childminders have only a limited input, or why nannies are not registered and inspected while childminders are.

The situation is a complete hotchpotch of historical anomalies, based on unthought-out assumptions. The CWDC needs to take a long hard look, and form a view about the workforce that children and young people need if their requirements are to be fulfilled. We may be along way from the ideal, but unless the service has an identified goal (and a rationale for the goal identified) it will risk continuing to flounder. The CWDC has a great opportunity, which has never existed before, and it must not be missed.

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