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Muddle that passes for progress

Helen Penn on the proposal to set up a training organisation for the child-care industry

It is nearly 100 years since Margaret McMillan pointed out the pressing need for a coherent service which offered both affordable care for working mothers and nursery education for children; nearly 80 years since Labour first included such a demand in its manifesto; and nearly 25 years since the Tory party gave us a watered down version, but at least a version, of nursery education for all.

A lot of problems simply go away if you do not deal with them but this one has not; it has become more intractable, and each official step - the Children Act, the Education Reform Act, privatisation of local authority services, vouchers - serves to fragment the situation still more and makes any rational solution harder to arrive at.

The irrational solution we have now is that at the time when they most need stability, young children are forced to move between several different settings: nannies and au pairs; childminders; playgroups; private day nurseries; nursery classes, reception classes. Their access to these services is not governed by any notion of need or entitlement but instead is directly related to their parents' ability to pay and to the arbitrary availability of the education. It is a situation which few other European countries tolerate, but which we have been persuaded to accept as normal.

The latest event in this dismal scenario is the proposal to set up an industrial training organisation (ITO) to oversee training for those who work with young children. ITOs were first set up in 1982 through a Department of Employment initiative to oversee and advise employers about training initiatives in their sector. Their function is "to identify short-term and long-term training needs in the sector; to establish training standards; to represent the training interests of the sector to government and employers; and to provide information about training". They may also develop their own training materials and offer direct training to those in the sector. They are essentially self-financing and not necessarily linked to any form of further or higher education.

Currently there are about 130 ITOs in fields as diverse as plumbing, publishing and sport and recreation.

Partly prompted by lobbying from a few private nursery chains about the modern apprenticeship scheme which enables employers to take young people and train them on the job at very low rates of pay, the Department for Education and Employment decided that an ITO for child care was worth investigating, on the basis that "the (childcare) sector does not have a single focus for co-ordinating and overseeing training and development". In September l995 they commissioned a firm of private consultants with no track record in child care or education to undertake a feasibility study. The consultants did however set up a consultative group of representatives from the private and voluntary sector and from the Local Government Management Board to advise them. Their first report was sent back by the group for radical revision. Their second is due shortly.

Just as services for young children are a lottery, so is the training which underpins them. Different awarding bodies award different qualifications which are often not transferable or not accepted by employers. In order to work in a nursery class or nursery school teachers must now undertake degree-level subject-based training to work in primary schools - with the nursery years as an add-on if at all. Nursery nurses who work mainly but not exclusively in the care sector train at a much lower level. The standard qualifications for nursery nursing, the NNEB diploma or BTEC are geared to approximately A-level standard. These cover a wider age-range of children, and a wider range of care settings than teaching but do so more superficially. Work placements for these qualifications include nannying and indeed becoming a nanny is the only available work for many who qualify.

The national vocational qualification in "child care and education" was intended to offer a way forward for the many women childminders or playgroup workers who lack formal qualifications. The intention was to assess the experience and skills of people in work and grant them formal recognition. But increasingly the NVQ is being offered as an alternative training either by colleges or by individual organisations setting themselves up as "assessment centres" . The NVQ is meant to be self-financing, but for each applicant it costs about Pounds 800 to buy materials, and to arrange for mentoring and assessment. In some cases training and enterprise councils or employers are subsidising women to take the NVQ, but the cost is a burden for the low-paid women unable to obtain financial assistance. There are also doubts about the quality of a workplace-based training. Child care settings are notoriously diverse in the quality and standards of what they offer children. The NVQ assessment will be fine if the workplace is a good one, but what if it is not?

The NVQ in child care and education is presently under the umbrella of the care sector consortium which is concerned with care settings as diverse as work in residential care for the elderly and work in children's' homes. Critics of the consortium claim that child care and education is a peripheral and misunderstood area within the care sector framework and development of care and education NVQs has become increasingly difficult. In any case the NVQ is also a low-level qualification compared with teaching and cannot substitute for it; and like the NNEB diploma it is heavily gender-biased. According to census returns, work with young children is the most gender-segregated of any employment sector.

Some universities, most notably Manchester Metropolitan University, are trying to resolve the incoherence of present training by offering a broad-based early years degree, with a variety of access routes, and with sophisticated ways of crediting prior experience. They argue there is no short cut to a proper all-round training, both practical and academic, which qualifies people to work with children aged 0-8 in a range of care and education settings.

In setting up the ITO there are a number of principles at stake. What is the "child care sector" and does it include or exclude early education settings? Who is the relevant employer group, the private or the public sector and do they have different requirements? (And does it matter that the overwhelming number of those employed looking after children are in effect small businesses on the verge of financial viability?) What is an appropriate level of training for those who work with young children, a GCSE or A-level standard or a degree-level standard? What is the relationship of an ITO to the formal education and training sector? Should training be grant-eligible in any way or is it a matter for employers and employees? Can or should the gender imbalance be addressed?

The ITO feasibility study cannot, of course, address any of these fundamental issues, since they are irresolvable without a clear Government policy on early childhood services. Since training is training for something, and does not exist in a vacuum, then the kind of services which exist inevitably shape the training which is required. An ITO for child care and education will not solve the problem of what the services might be, who should work in them, and how those workers might be remunerated. Paradoxically at the same time as one branch of the DFEE is supporting a system which will drive a wedge between training for care and and training for education another part of the DFEE is being required to introduce a voucher system which ignores any such distinction. The services themselves need a fundamental reorganization (and more public funding) and only then can training make sense.

An ITO can only add another level of confusion to the already fragmented field of early years services. Its advocates claim that it will represent "the sector" (whatever that is) to Government and "develop ways of maintaining contact with senior people across the industry through advisory panels, surveys, dinners, etc". Such is the lack of imagination and the level of expectation about what kind of services we provide for young children and the despair of those working in the services we do have, that this offer seems a way forward!

Helen Penn is senior research fellow of the child development and learning group at the Institute of Education, London University.

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