The long-standing debate about whether childcare is "good" or "bad" for children continues to run, the assumption being that standards are generally high. But imagine a nursery which is not of the highest quality; still perfectly legal, of course, but running to minimum standards all along the line. Let's call it the "Best Ever Nursery"; after all it pays to advertise, particularly when you're in competition with so many better nurseries.
Daycare standards are set down quite clearly and are regulated by the early years arm of Ofsted, which visits annually. While Ofsted encourages and promotes good practice, it can only enforce the minimum standards enshrined in law.
The Best Ever Nursery is in a two-storey building with children on both floors. The youngest are on the upper floor with a ratio of three children to one member of staff with a rather cramped dog-leg staircase. If there is a fire, how will the children get out? Fire safety officers have not insisted on a higher ratio, so Ofsted cannot insist on it either. Employing more staff would cost more and so Best Ever chooses not to do so.
Occasionally, at lunchtimes, the ratio slips to one to four, but as the children are often asleep during this time the owners feel this is acceptable. Ofsted would not agree, but unless it is informed it cannot investigate.
The Best Ever Nursery opened without an outdoor play area. Ofsted has been told that staff take the children regularly to surrounding parks and are satisfied with this arrangement. National standards on this point are vague, using rather woolly words such as "usually" and "often".
Unfortunately the staff, 50 per cent of whom are unqualified, cannot be bothered to take the children out every day and, because there is no specific requirement for how often a child should go outside, they are never challenged. Remember that children are often in nursery for around 55 hours a week and, where overnight care is offered, the hours can be much longer.
Best Ever is staffed entirely by women under 22. Those who are qualified are straight out of college. Minimum standards say there must be an officer in charge who is qualified to NVQ level 3 and who has substantial experience. Best Ever Nursery has advertised but is unable to recruit, so Ofsted has agreed to let it remain open, using the member of staff with the NVQ as temporary officer in charge. She has only a few months' experience, but she's willing and will do her best. This will give the owners a chance to advertise again, although they are only offering the minimum wage for this responsible position, so it is far from certain they will recruit next time either.
Nappies are changed at set times throughout the day to make sure none are missed, and there is no key worker system in place. The owners prefer it if children do not get attached to staff in case they are upset when staff leave, go on holiday, and so on. They have never heard of attachment theory and, as their temporary officer in charge has little experience, they get their own way. These are business people with an eye for making money, not childcare experts.
The owners are not deliberately cruel, nor are they aware that they are delivering poor quality care; they are running their business as efficiently as possible while keeping standards high enough to get through their yearly inspection. This is all that is required of them.
But surely we should demand more. The national standards need to be revisited and tightened up. Best Ever Nursery does not exist, but I have observed the problems outlined above in real nurseries. Thankfully, as yet, not all in one place.
Helen Sanderson is an early years consultant. She writes under a pseudonym