Thursday, 12 April 2012

"It doesn't take GCSE's or anything else to change nappies, just common sense" - comments on the Nutbrown Review

This doesn’t happen often: Channel 4 news gave me a call a few Saturdays back, asking if I would be interviewed about the interim report from the Nutbrown Review. I said no – partly because I wasn’t sure if I had enough time to get home and get changed from being out in London, meaning I'd end up appearing like the stereotype of an inner London teacher (jeans, T-shirt, unshaven, scruffy, soft on standards, etc. And not even trendy.)

But the serious reason behind my “no” was that the tone of the media discussion would probably have made it impossible to say anything sensible about the Interim Report. More than a week after it appeared, the 
Times and the BBC suddenly got hold of it and focused on the idea that Cathy Nutbrown was saying that nursery staff are generally illiterate and innumerate, the sort of people who shouldn’t be let loose on pets and farm animals, let alone children. The Telegraph topped them both with: "nursery workers so illiterate they struggle to read stories aloud." Now, where in the report was that

Actually, the report is saying is that consideration should be given to requiring future candidates for the level 3 childcare and education diploma to have English and Maths GCSEs. Nowhere in the interim report is it suggested that early years practitioners generally lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, or can't read stories out loud. In fact, the report shows great respect for the commitment and quality of the staff – I urge you to read it [PDF] and give it the careful consideration it deserves.

But if the journalists got the thrust of the interim report wrong, did they get something else right? Maybe they were accurately reflecting their readers’ and viewers’ opinions of early years practitioners? The comments posted on the web would make you think so. Here are some of the highlights.
More than 180 people commented under the Daily Mail's news item, mostly showing a high appreciation of the professional status of early years staff. Derek from Kent advises: “let people who can attain such lofty qualifications get proper professional type jobs and leave the dirty manual work to those who can't , it doesn't take GCSE's or anything else to change nappies, just common sense.”  Many more comments give the work similarly high status, including Matt from Bristol complaining that “you seem to need "qualifications" to clean toilets nowadays, its ridiculous” and Sarah from Iowa asking “Can they count to 10 & teach colors? That's all a nursery worker needs.”

Over at the Telegraph, where more than 240 people have commented, even counting to ten seems more than is required, with Roseclare saying that “if you put a mirror under a potential students nose and it steams up then they can get on a child care course”. So, as long as you’re alive, that’s ok. The idea that early years practitioners might want or need academically rigorous qualifications is endlessly ridiculed. Ianbb is typical - “a bachelor's degree? For a job that involves stopping the children eating the crayons? Are you mad?” 

Other commentators are happy to ignore all questions of qualifications or degrees and just rubbish everything - “Profession?  It is not even a skilled job” (Ram2009); “Child care is an excellent option for not so bright young people - why make it even more difficult to insert them into the workforce?” (Rajna); and, perhaps best of all, “It surprises me that they can even get illiterate and inumerate people to do it. I would rather stack shelves in a supermarket.” (Tf

Probably best to stick to that, Tf, and stay away from young children, in that case.

Meanwhile, over at the BBC news website (more than 280 commentsanwarkhan comments that “it is plainly rediculous to allow non-academics to work in play schools. Which responsible parent would begrudge paying the additional few hundred pounds each week for the comfort of knowing that their children are being looked after by highly skilled intellectuals.” At least that's a little bit funny, unlike Christine’s attempt to start up a class-war: “it's bad enough that their writing is awful, I can deal with deciphering portfolios. But I don't want my child saying "fink", "haich", and getting their subject verb agreement wrong.” In a similarly offensive vein, Roseclare makes the charmingly-put (though entirely unsubstantiated) claim on the Telegraph comments that "t
he biggest culprits are Asian women who want a job that fits around the children but many cannot string together a sentence in basic English". Walijczyk has a similarly low opinion of those who would be early years practitioners – “what else do you expect from a profession that bases its recruitment on teenage girls with no qualifications who don't know what else to do with their lives?”

Running through the comments sections of all the websites is the belief that being an early years practitioner is largely about “wiping noses and bums”, as winimi puts it on Mumsnet (where the overall discussion of the interim report is quite well-informed), or “listening to screaming children every minute of the working day combined with emptying the contents of fifty nappies”, as Tf says on the Telegraph. 
genee has a similarly straightforward view of what the job is all about: “I mean really....these are babies we are talking about....poo vomit and lego not nuclear physics.”

Perhaps the most positive thing to say about all these comments,  is that they make clear the scale of Cathy Nutbrown’s challenge – how to improve the status of early years practitioners and help the public to understand that this is a vocation that requires many skills and a high degree of professionalism?

I do not want to disrespect  people who do important cleaning job: but I wonder why so many of the comment-writers choose to compare early years staff with toilet cleaners and bin-emptiers? Is the job of looking after a child really like keeping a toilet clean?

So, all in all, it made me feel angry, and pretty disillusioned. That’s why I waited a while before writing this piece – that feeling came quickly, and easily. It is the obvious response.

Looking back over the comments, some other qualities also strike me now. Setting aside the insulting and demeaning comments, there are also consistent threads about the importance of practitioners’ caring qualities. England is a country which always rates academic qualities more highly than practical skills – and, understandably, this worries people who do not want to see caring qualities trumped by GCSEs.

Of course, that isn't what Cathy Nutbrown is suggesting. But a nerve that has been touched, and it is worth paying attention to that. In the Daily Mail, Karin says “so long as they nurture, care for and keep my children safe I don't care what their gcse grades are”, while over on the BBC Heartbreak Hotel comments that “young people who train to work with young children are not necessarily academic but all of the ones I knew were very loving and caring. These qualities count for so much more. Having to have high academic qualifications would exclude some of the best people.” A large number of the comments, whilst being sceptical of the focus on qualifications, are generally positive about
early years practitioners and admiring of their caring qualities, hard work, and commitment to the children's happiness and welfare.

The comment-writers may also have some sound grounds for their suspicions about an overly “educational” focus.  With the newly-reviewed EYFS ramping up the standards for children to reach in their maths and their reading by the end of the Reception year, maybe it is quite legitimate to worry about an over-formal approach to the early years? Are we in danger of expecting too much too soon, or should we join in with Snowman's dry humour on the BBC website: “if they're loving and patient with the kids, what the hell. ... Plenty of time for Proust later.”

What is missing, of course, is any conception that an early years practitioner could – and should – be able to understand child development and light up young children’s intellectual life and provide loving care. There is a great tradition in the English early years of rigorous observation of young children’s play and learning – even before the mid-point of the last century, the McMillan sisters, Susan Isaacs, Anna Freud and many others had illuminated aspects of the intellectual life of young children with exceptional skill in both observation and interpretation. Yet no one could justifiably accuse them of neglecting care, or being unconcerned about children’s physical health.

Many of us working in the early years have developed complex understandings of what it means to be an effective practitioner, and we hold rich debates about this amongst ourselves. But the website comments show that there is almost no wider public awareness of this private conversation. There seems to be very little appreciation, amongst the web-commenting public, of aspects of early years practice which most of us consider to be fundamental: that the phase from birth to three years old is the most sensitive window of child development and learning; that astounding progress has been made in our understanding of how the youngest children develop; that the right combination of care and stimulation is vital, but subtle and tricky to achieve. 
Sadly, for the commenting public, early years seems to mean basic, low-grade care, without even a sniff of early education.

I don't want to end on too gloomy a note, so how about this for a definition of what it means to be a practitioner who is “good with children”? madscientist recalls on the BBC website that “my daughter went to a child minder for a year. To cut the long story short, she was good with children but complete idiot otherwise. No set routine, did her own house chores while minding children. Worst of all did not keep any record of children's development”.

Thanks heavens madscientist didn't stumble across someone who wasn't any good!