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Nursery nurses: the invisible profession

They are the backbone of the early years yet their role is often ignored and rarely rewarded, says Michael White

HIS year marks the 20th anniversary of the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses (PANN), celebrations which coincide with a period of extreme unease and discontent among its members. The association has come a long way since its inception and, with UK membership now standing at a healthy 5,000, it is the largest union with a single focus on the early years sector.

Members include nursery nurses, officers, advisers, tutors, family centre staff, nannies, organisers and auxiliaries. They play a key role in the rapidly expanding pre-school sector, yet they are often ignored, neglected and overlooked.

Child care is as important to the national economy as the transport system, and has a much more impressive record. Many political decision-makers and education administrators are recent converts to the central importance of these vital early years and have failed to appreciate the historical struggle which took place to achieve this belated recognition.

Those pioneers of the British Association for Early Childhood Education (BAECE) deserve great credit for keeping the faith, while all around them sold their souls to the gods of Rigour, Rigidity and Routine. They championed the centrality of play at a time when some equated play with a reward for completion of the "important" tasks of "real" education.

The P1 stages were when the "work" really started, and yet many ignored the crucial foundations laid during these formative years. When impressive expressive arts results from Italy were trumpeted, many of the traditionalists were knocked off their pretentious and patronising stotts; yet such good practice had been taking place under their noses.

The nursery nurse was a pivotal figure, yet her role was often neglected, rarely rewarded and even seen at times as posing a threat to the professionalism of the registered teacher. Those teachers who see themselves operating on a higher plain than their nursery nurse colleagues should read Nursery Nurses and Teachers - Working Together in Powerful Partner-ship, a most impressive piece of work issued by PANN.

Nursery nurses have seen the arrival of armies of parent helpers, auxiliaries, assistants and others into nurseries. Some perceive a dilution of their expertise, and a lack of recognition. Alarmingly, the association reports an upsurge in calls from members who are hearing of proposals which could lead to job losses and reduced hours.

As many authorities remodel their pre-school provision, the concerns seem to focus on costs rather than value. Nursery nurses are the forgotten factor in the success of Scotland's recent improvements in services for under-fives. They engage in rigorous professional training. Their programmes of study, modules and assignments would stretch many teachers.

Yet they emerge into a career that lacks structure, incentive and progression. Many are funding their own professional development, as education authority funds are interpreted as applying only to teachers. Not for them the prospect of a belated financial recognition of McCrone proportions.

Nursery nurses have willingly participated in the experiments of multi-locational nurseries. They have adapted to the new inspection regimes, the planning frameworks and the plethora of quality initiatives.

They deserve better support and recognition.

Many are gaining impressive new skills and abilities, and their willingness to attend courses and seminars at considerable cost is rarely acknowledged by employers. Status, it seems, is related to the age group you teach.

A quick look at the vacancies columns of the quality press illustrates the problem. Two jobs were advertised in the early years section. One was for a nursery nurse, had details of the essential qualifications and experience needed. It paid the princely sum of pound;10,000. The other was for a director of early years with Ofsted in England, and the salary was between pound;85,000 and pound;100,000. It stated, without the slightest trace of embarrassment, that the possession of educational experience would be advantageous.

In inviting you to predict which job would most impact on young lives, I ask you all to look closely at those working in your nursery. Can you really see them?

Michael White is professional officer (Scotland) with the Professional Association of Teachers, of which PANN is part.

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