Whether you are a psychiatrist, a prison officer or a plumber, you probably consider yourself – and want to be considered by other people – to be a professional, and that is because the term has a certain cachet about it. Professionals are respected. They have a standing in the community, recognised by the public. They expect to be appropriately rewarded too.
So, as a child care worker, do you consider yourself a professional? If so, what do you mean by the term? And are you really professional?
The Seven Signs of the Professional
What is the nature of a profession? I suggest that there are seven criteria by which you can test who is genuinely professional.
(a) Protected roles
Established professions have a statutory basis with protected roles and responsibilities. You cannot work for the National Health Service as a doctor unless you have trained and qualified on an approved course, and if the quality of your work is found wanting, you can be struck off the register.
Social workers now have the same standing in the United Kingdom. Most people working with children do not, though the exceptions are childminders, who have to register with Ofsted, and who are not permitted by law to mind other people’s children if they are unregistered.
(b) A special body of knowledge
Members of professions are meant to have a special body of knowledge not known to non-professionals. Lawyers, for example, pick up specialist knowledge which their clients are usually quite unaware of, and there are arcane branches of law where handfuls of specialists are the only people who understand the minutiae. Doctors probably have the largest professional vocabulary, with thousands of specialist terms for parts of the body, illnesses and treatments.
By contrast, most of the knowledge used by child care workers has come from psychologists, educationists, sociologists, doctors, nurses and members of other professions. The amount of child care writing written by child care workers is fairly limited, and none of it is arcane, complex or specialist, with the possible exception of some of the therapeutic literature. Even then, nearly all the terms used are everyday words given special meanings.
(c) Special skills
Professionals usually have special skills not learnt by non-professionals. A competent DIY amateur might learn the skills of a plumber, but in some professions it takes a life-time of training and supervised practice to become competent. The classic example is the brain surgeon; no one would consider doing the job without extensive training.
So, what are the skills of child care workers? The general public probably thinks that they are minimal; after all, everyone has to bring up children, so what is so special about the work? The exception, interestingly, is probably the type of television professional such as Supernanny who sorts out families whose children behave appallingly. Some child care professionals have a low opinion of Supernanny’s work, but its professionalism is acknowledged by the public.
Child care workers themselves, though, know that there are skills in communicating with children, in building up their confidence, in getting them to achieve things they did not know they were capable of – and to do all these sorts of things when working with disturbed children, damaged by bad parenting and abuse. These skills may not be apparent to the outsider, and real success is achieved when it is the child who is successful: no flourishes of the surgeon’s knife, no dramatic speeches in court – but just self-effacement and a sense of pride in the child’s achievement.
(d) Code of Ethics
Professionals work to a Code of Ethics, usually established by the profession to ensure a level of probity to maintain their good name. This reflects the fact that the clients of a profession are, to differing extents, dependent upon them. In the case of the surgeon, the professional’s work may be a matter of life and death, but in less dramatic cases the quality of advice or care can still make a real difference to clients’ lives. What is more, clients may understand their predicament so little that they may be unaware of bad practice when they become victims. They may not know that a solicitor has made off with some of their money.
In order to ensure high standards of probity, professions have set up standards of practice and systems to ensure that they are maintained. Typically, the professions have policed themselves. While it is to their credit that they have done so, there are at times suspicions that they are defensive or protective, and unwilling to see things from the clients’ viewpoint.
In the case of child care workers a Code of Ethics has been imposed by the General Social Care Council, which is unique in regulating a very wide range of services and professional groups (rather than a single profession) and in being made up largely of non-professionals. In this respect, child care workers have not regulated themselves, and are controlled by people outside the profession. This situation may well be to the benefit of service users, but it also demonstrates the comparative weakness of the profession.
Next comes the image of the profession within the wider society. Everyone knows what a teacher does, and from an early age when children play doctors and nurses they have an idea of the comparative roles of the two groups.
All too often, though, people in all areas of the community – politicians, the media and the man in the street – are confused about the distinction between nannies, au pairs, child minders and child home carers. Indeed, people who work with children share no common image, unlike teachers or doctors. In most professions there is an umbrella term, such as doctor, and then specialisms within the profession. In child care, there are the specialisms but no real overall image.
The different groups of child care workers are even encouraged to become competitive rivals – foster carers versus residential child care workers or child minders versus nursery nurses, and they are compared as if one group were better than the other. In short the profession’s image is splintered.
Then there are the rewards given to the profession. While top bankers and business people are paid millions and award themselves huge salary increases, there are very few child care workers on six-figure salaries, and the largest part of the army of people who work directly with children are women, often working part-time and with pay-levels only a little above the minimum wage.
While top diplomats seem to get automatic knighthoods, the number of people with backgrounds in work with children who become Dames or Knights is very small. Only at the level of MBEs does the profession get any significant recognition.
Finally, professions have values. While the Codes of Ethics prescribe acceptable behaviour, it is the internal values of the professionals which actually make a difference to the lives of their clients. A teacher who bullies pupils may achieve success in so far as the children do well in examinations through fear of criticism, but they may learn to hate the subject s/he teaches as well as the teacher.
On this count, child care scores well. I met an IT specialist who accompanied his wife to a childminders’ conference and who had been bowled over by the friendliness of the event, being used to the competitive sniping of his fellow-professionals. Of course there are some workers who abuse the children in their care or who are burnt out and can offer nothing, but in general child care workers are concerned for their children, they care for them and they want them to develop and succeed as adults, and to be happy and fulfilled during childhood.
How well does childcare score against the criteria?
By my count, child care scored 8 out of 28, using a four-point scale from 0 to 3 :
(a) Only childminders have a protected title: poor (1).
(b) Virtually no special body of knowledge: very poor (0).
(c) Special skills, but not recognised by the public: medium (2).
(d) Code of Ethics exists, but imposed and controlled externally: medium (2).
(e) Image splintered: very poor (0).
(f) Rewards: very poor (0).
(g) Values: excellent (3).
I don’t want to quibble about specific scores, but I hope that the point has been made that child care has a long way to go before it is properly established as a profession. Plenty of other established professions score 3 time and again against these criteria, even if they don’t match the values of child care.
Why has childcare never achieved full professional status?
I suggest seven reasons.
(a) Low status
The first is that parenting is a low-status task in Britain. People in Britain actually seem to like children less than they do in many other countries. They see them as something to be tolerated, as long as they are not noisy or offensive. They sentimentalise about them when they are little and demonise them when they are big. Some invest little time in their children and palm them off onto professional carers, as recommended by Mrs Beeton.
While parenting is seen as a low-status occupation to be avoided if possible, it can be no surprise that child care workers are not held in high esteem, and are not seen as real professionals.
(b) Poor self-image
In consequence, child care workers often have a poor self-image. They have to be encouraged to see themselves as professionals. Many do not see themselves as needing to be trained. Some are involved in child care only while their own children are young. There are, of course, others who do see the work as professional and battle to establish their status, but for many it is a toss-up whether to work with children or in Tesco’s.
Teachers, lawyers, doctors and psychologists spend years t university, obtaining degrees and post-qualifying awards. By contrast, it is often said that one can walk in off the street into a child care job. This may be over-stating the case now, as childminding requires registration and many workers are trained, but there remains a sharp contrast between child care and others who work with children and young people such as educational psychologists, teachers or paediatric nurses, where lengthy university-level qualifying training is a requirement.
(d) Low pay
Closely linked with recruitment and the lack of requirements for qualifications, there is the matter of low pay. While senior managers may be on adequate salaries, pay levels are generally very close to the minimum wage. A large proportion of the child care work force is made up of women, and the low pay perhaps reflects the inequality between men’s and women’s salaries. The situation is often exacerbated because of part-time work. The outcome is a workforce which is not well off and finds it difficult to argue its case for better rewards.
Because child care workers are largely in contact with relatively small numbers of children and often work on one site (in a nursery or a children’s home, for example), they get less opportunity than some colleagues, such as field social workers, to broaden their knowledge of services for children. They have greater difficulty getting promotion, therefore, and are under-represented in the senior echelons of large organisations. This has had a wider impact in the antipathy to residential care on the part of some managers who are former field social workers, or in the feelings expressed by some inspectors about child minders.
(f) Body of theory
There is a limited body of theory in child care. Most of the knowledge required by child care workers is gleaned from other professions such as psychology, sociology, education or the law. Only in therapeutic work with children is there a substantial body of theory which has been developed within the child care profession, and even that is not restricted to the profession, being readily accessible to people in allied professions.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the child care profession is splintered. The workforce does not share an overall professional identity as child care workers, unlike teachers or doctors. Other professions have an overall identity, and specialisms within it. Child care focuses on the specialisms. Child care workers therefore see themselves as nannies, youth workers, childminders, residential child care workers or whatever branch they are in.
The result is a weak profession, and the weakness is emphasised when outsiders set different branches in opposition to each other – residential care versus foster care, or childminding versus day nurseries. The child care profession is unable to fight off these incursions. Until it unites it will be weak.
What are the outcomes for childcare?
In consequence, child care as a profession has low status and the workers have modest levels of pay.
There are other strategic consequences too. Unlike continental European countries, where child care professionals have influence, it has been the tradition in the United Kingdom for policy developments to be led by politicians and civil servants, and for enquiries into scandals to be carried out by non-child care professionals. Read the list, and there is scarcely a child care specialist among the authors. Some of the reports are excellent, but it is a sign of the profession’s subjugation that it does not have a range of well-known respected figures on whom it can draw.
What are the chances of improvement now?
There are, however, for the first time, signs of change.
Over recent years there has been a massive expansion of training through S/NVQs. One may be critical of the content and values of such training, but the investment is encouraging.
There is the Children’s Commissioner, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, to battle on behalf of children, and he is the sort of person who identifies key issues, takes them up and worries at them, drawing them to the attention of both the public and those in positions of influence.
There is now the Children’s Workforce Development Council, which is doing a lot of useful work in creating the right frameworks for the professional development of child care workers. But note the title; it refers to a workforce with no hint of a profession.
There is now the General Social Care Council, in a position to register child care workers, which is greatly encouraging, as this has been needed for many years. However, early promises of the registration of residential child care staff have as yet come to nothing.
There is a Minister for Children, reflecting the Prime Minister’s personal concern about this field, and investment in services for children has been greater than under any previous government in the United Kingdom.
There is the genuine concern to consult and involve children and young people in the planning of services and systems. In this, Britain leads the way. Coupled with it, there is an important emphasis on outcomes, which helps to ensure that services are focused on meeting children’s needs and that other systems such as training, for example, are subordinated to provide the skills to achieve the primary aims.
Finally, there is the growing use a social pedagogy model in talking about child care. This is not only good news for children in treating their needs holistically, positively and non-pathologically, but it could also unite child carers under a single professional banner.
What can child carers do to help develop profession?
This article has focused mainly on England, but the messages apply to the rest of the United Kingdom, and maybe to other countries. The opportunities to establish child care as a profession in England are greater now than ever before, but if it is to happen, it will not be by government edict. It will be for the professionals themselves to take the initiative.
I suggest the following five pointers for action :
(a) Read, debate issues, network, think and innovate.
Try out new ideas. Share them with others. Learn from others, including workers in other countries through international links such as FICE. In many major movements it has been the collective action of large numbers of people which have had an impact on the wider community and people in positions of power. Child care workers need to unite, in order to be recognised and treated properly.
(b) Join a professional organisation.
Join an organisation such as the Social Care Association, so that you can share ideas, learning from others and offering your ideas. In some sections of child care there are powerful organisations; the National Child Minding Association has about 48,000 members out of about 70,000 childminders, but in general child care workers do not join up. It is their loss. They should, both to contribute to their profession and to gain support for themselves.
(c) Keep on training throughout your career.
Whether it is inservice in your staff team, day seminars, personal studying in your own time or qualifying courses, time put into training is usually a good investment. It gives you new skills and knowledge. It keeps the job interesting, and so increases job satisfaction. And it sets you up for promotion.
While employers have a responsibility to ensure that their workforces are adequately trained for their roles, it is the responsibility of workers to look after their own career development, to skill themselves up for promotion, to keep on reading the latest books and magazines, and to keep on thinking and innovating to make sure that children and young people have the best services possible.
(d) Take active steps to influence politicians and others in power.
Brief local and national political parties, Councillors and Members of Parliament about your views on current professional issues. Make sure they know that child care workers are professionals who play a skilled, difficult and important role. There will be plenty of other pressures on politicians’ time, and they will inevitably ignore child care workers’ needs if the profession does not keep them fully informed.
(e) Encourage the social pedagogy model.
This will help to focus the profession’s work on children, and to build up the unity of the child care profession. This is an idea which has found its time. It can be argued that what social pedagogues do is not very different from what child care workers do, but the important point is that the thinking behind social pedagogy makes sense of what professionals are trying to achieve for children.
With a united voice, the profession will be able to have much greater impact and achieve standing in the eyes of the community. Children and young people matter, and so does the profession which looks after them. The success of the profession depends, though, on its members taking action.
So, do you want to be a member of a profession? Or do you just want to be part of a workforce?
This article, which has been revised, first appeared in Social Caring, which is published quarterly by the Social Care Association. The SCA is an independent professional association for people working with any client group, including children and young people, in the field of social care, across the statutory, voluntary and private sectors, and it was set up nearly sixty years ago to promote good practice. The Association’s website is www.socialcaring.co.uk .