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!


  1. I read these comments & was really disgusted. It's such a terrible problem that in the UK early childhood education is largely viewed this way! In Greece, when I was growing up (& I think it's still the case), people who work at nurseries are considered at exactly the same level as teachers; and indeed, they go through the same education (university education) to do this job. I'm not sure that's the point though; university education or not, it's a profession that should be valued much much more than it is...

  2. Hi Maria, I agree, an important point is how out-of-step England is getting with much of the rest of Europe on this. I think that in England we don't value early childhood enough, and that the devaluing of the people who work with young children is partly just an extension of this. Having said all that about international comparisons, there are some surprises e.g. that whilst New Zealand has made such a positive commitment by aiming to have every early childhood practitioner a trained teacher, their schoolteachers will still be paid more. Same in Denmark, which is so progressive, yet the early childhood pedagogues are not as well paid as the schoolteachers. I know pay is not everything, but it does represent something very important about value in a capitalist society.

    1. it's true and it's good,that somebody want to talk about a payments in education sector. I was stydu education not in the UK, had finished 3 years on the University, it costed me lots of work, but it worth. People think, that teachers in EY are not as important and teachers from schools. Definately it's not true. How teachers can be more or less important. When child goes to nursery, he/she starts his/her life-social life. Who show him/her how it works, what to do, how to play with other people, how to share? Of course nursery teachers! When child goes to reception, he/her goes with all thoes experience! My question is, is it worse job then other teachers? It's not, it's really hard job, especially if you have to work with bilingual children in your nursery. My child is bilingual. Whe she started nursery, she could understud english, but couldn't say anything. After 2 months in nursery, her english is getting better. Who teach her? Nursery nurse and all teachers in nursery and i know, that when she goes to the reception next year, she will speak english propaly.

  3. Great piece, Julian.

    I also watched in horror as the comments came in on the various websites and saw the front of the The Times. I remember Tweeting about it at the time. It was very wise to wait until things had cooled down to blog!

    Sadly, I have seen no corrections in the Times over the factual inaccuracies or any apologies on the websites.

    It would appear we still have a long way to go before the public understands about the care, education, development and life shaping things that go on in nurseries and settings of all sorts.

    It is noticeable that the Revised EYFS has not made the front pages. As you say, maybe a formal, statutory framework doesn't play into the reader's preconceived ideas of a practitioner.

    But maybe there's no such thing as bad publicity? At least it got people talking about the Nutbrown Review!

    1. Hi Kathy, thanks for posting your comment. I agree that the controversy gives us a chance to put forward an alternative view of the qualities needed by early years practitioners, getting away from the "warehousing" approach to childcare that is so common, with young staff paid just above the minimum wage, moving rapidly from job to job.

  4. Some interesting observations. Views on way media reported it so long after published shared by Voice: the union for education professionals, which was also approached for comment

  5. The URl above should be

  6. I posted a link to this on my facebook page, and it prompted quite a lot of hand-wringing. It’s a scary picture, and hard to get beyond the contempt in some of the comments. In trying to do so, I am left wondering if what is happening is a misconceived comparison between the childhoods (or imagined childhoods) of respondents and those of children today: “When I was a pre-schooler, I was just looked after by my mum/gran/nanny – they had no qualifications whatsoever, and it didn’t do me any harm.” If I’m right, there is a real question to be answered: why do children today need ‘experts’ to care for them?
    My attempt at answering this question would take forward the two strands you mention: good support for learning; and good caring. I offer them tentatively, as someone who is somewhat on the margins of debates early learning, so I apologize in advance if they are blindingly obvious or offend anyone’s sensibilities or politics. The first is the solid and growing evidence of the long-term benefits of good quality early education. Practitioners see the difference they make every day, but parents may not. So maybe we need to make more of the research evidence, as shown most robustly in Kathy Sylva’s research. Developing this point, I suspect that class differences are important in making this case – as you have written Julian, the speed with which poor children fall behind their more privileged peers is a scandal - and again the public is ill-informed about this. The second is a more rounded debate about how different childhood is today, especially with more mothers working. The elephant in the room? I don’t know, but perhaps we need to be more honest about the challenge of filling, in a group childcare context, that primary-carer-shaped hole in young children’s lives.

    1. Hi Tim - thanks for posting. I think there is a key difference between being cared for by mum/gran/nanny - which is that caring for groups of children, especially in some of the larger nurseries, is very different to having an individual and special relationship with one or a couple of children in the family. Managing group care and early education well is difficult - and so needs skilled, capable and reflective practitioners.

      Added to that, is the specific issue which is really about social justice - the very strong link between poor quality nurseries and poor neighbourhoods. England, unusually for Europe, went strongly down a market route - even the Neighbourhood Nurseries and the nurseries in Children's Centres, which were given start up and capital costs, have almost all been expected to break even through charging fees in the medium term. This is very difficult - which is why so many have closed. And whilst there are many noble exceptions, the general rule is that poor neighbourhoods have poorer quality nurseries, and that creates a double disadvantage to those children. I think two really important steps to a fairer society would be (a) to see early years education and care as a public service, for public benefit, and not a consumer product and (b) stop all the cuts to Sure Start Children's Centres and other facilities in poorer neighbourhoods.

  7. The question 'Why do children today need experts to care for them?' Although more complex than one single reason, the most obvious point is that parents/families are either too busy/can't be bothered or don't know how to do it themselves!

    I add that this is not necessarily their fault either.

  8. Hi hammer6 - thanks for commenting.There have been similar theories in the recent past about infant education for children 5-7 (key stage one) too. Anyone remember the Tory Education Secretary John Patten and his plans to create a "mums' army"? in 1993?
    If we want childcare integrated with early education, then we need highly skilled and capable practitioners - this doesn't imply that parents are too busy, or can't be bothered, any more than the fact that I am not teaching my daughter triple science GCSE would mean that I don't care about her education.

  9. A great piece Julian, thank you.
    I work as an assessor on the new Level 3 Diploma for the Children and Young People's workforce. I have some excellent candidates but I do feel this qualification lets them down as it's really not fit for purpose. Alongside my assessing I also work as an EYP and SENCO in a nursery and therefore get to see first hand the value that quality training and on going professional development adds to good practice. I can't stress enough how important I feel Nutbrown's review is. Our children deserve the best that we can give them and that starts with suitably experienced and qualified practitioners. The introduction of the EYP status felt like a step forward for the workforce however this new Level 3 can only be viewed as a step back... roll on the changes!!

  10. Hi - and thanks for your post. Your first-hand experience as an assessor and practitioner is invaluable and I hope you have passed your views onto the Nutbrown Review.

  11. I am a childcare student, studying a BTEC Level 3 (A-Level grade) in Childcare, Learning and Development, I also have friends on the CACHE course, which is similar to the BTEC, but has exams instead of coursework. I am in my first year and am wondering where they managed to derive illiterate from? My course is assignment based, which means a lot of writing coursework; how I, or any other student on the course would, write an assignment without the ability to read is beyond me, moreover how could the students on a CACHE course, actually sit the exams for their course, without the ability to read the questions or write the answers?

    I would also like to add that there is a reason why BTEC students can achieve a higher level of UCAS points for the course than other A-Level students, my course is by no means easy, I have one week of college and then a week in placement, which means I am doing the equivalent of two years’ work in half of that time, it involves a considerable amount of reading, writing and research.

    Over the first year of my course, as we are now nearing the end of the first year, I would say that I, and any other student on the course, have easily written over 50 assignments. I and all the other students on the course have GCSE’s at least to grade C in Maths and Science, and a grade B in English language, as the basic requirements of the course

    To put into perspective just how hard the course is, I would like to add that at the beginning of the year there were around 35 students in the class, there are now only 12, as a result of the level of work required.

    1. Hi Leah, thanks for your post. I agree that it is really unfair for people to claim that candidates with a BTEC or CACHE award are "illiterate". Good luck with your coursework and with your placement.

  12. July 2012 at 17:14

    My daughter has decided to work with young children. She has a string of A*s and As at GCSE and A level, a 2(i)in Psychology from a Russell Group university and is set to complete her Master's in EYs in 2013. Her reward for putting children aged 0-5 first? £10,500 p.a. in her first professional role. It is insulting to my well qualified daughter and to the children she works with. BTW she is considering a career abroad.

  13. Hi - yes, it's nothing less than an insult to your daughter's commitment that she starts on such a low wage. Says it all, really. I hope she finds a better job in time, here or abroad - and wish her well. -

  14. People who wants to work with kids should have a good education. In my country, where I come from people who wants to work in nursery or school have to finish study. In the UK they just only have to finish Child care course. I don't know if person who work in nursery should have Maths and English GCSE as headteacher can check their accomplisments, but I'm sure they should love their job and do not be a Nursery Nurse or Teacher or teacher Assistant only, because they'll have lots of holidays.

    1. Hi - thanks for your comment. I think that most early years practitioners now work in private/community EY settings where the holidays are not particularly good, perhaps the real issue is that "childcare" should not be the recommended course for young people who aren't sure what they want to do, or haven't done that well at school.

  15. Julian - of course, children should have a well trained teachers around them and of course, when you are 16, you do not really know what to do and you try to do something, just only because everybody do it. That's why i said, it shouldn't only be enough to do childcare course to work in nursery. It should be something more and then, if someone really would like to work as a teacher, will do everything to have it. I've finished 3 years on the University and i was study education. My own experience show, that around half of my colleagues don't work in this sector, they just finished univeristy, because it was popular and wanted to have a master degree.

  16. Hello - thanks for your comment. I think that ultimately it's worth thinking of early childhood education and care as an all-graduate profession, but probably the steps proposed by Cathy Nutbrown would need to be taken first before thinking about that further step.

  17. Yes, but if you do not give your child good start, they'll always find a step back.