Phew! Who cares wins

28th May 2004 at 01:00
I couldn't believe it. No sooner have we been "done" by Her Majesty's Finest, than the letter arrives. The Care Commission? The Who Cares Commission more like it. They wanted to "do" our nursery as part of their programme.

Now, I know as much about the nursery as anyone else in my position does.

Precious little. I rely on Jennie for everything. I know as much about the control panels for the boiler-room as I do about the intricacies of the nursery. It's not for me, but at least I'll admit it, unlike some of my colleagues.

The day duly arrived, and I'd swatted up on the plethora of documentation.

It could have been variations on a theme of overkill. The commissioners arrived, four of them - in a black Zafira. How appropriate. The assessors cometh. They were full of platitudes and radiated self-belief, superiority and smugness in equal measure. Heads were patted, shawls adjusted and jewellery fiddled with as they made their way into the staffroom.

I discussed the day ahead, as they flicked through their well-prepared schedules.

My scanning of the attire suggested Harvey Nicks had the contract for Care Commission uniforms. I cringed when one of them actually mentioned "small steps for small people", a phrase I hadn't heard since probationer days.

What was more alarming - she meant it.

Our nursery teacher, Jennie, is a real gem, and has no fear of those in the suits. The fact that she had been awarded an OBE for services to early education, combined with her imminent retirement date, gave her the courage we all lacked.

Jennie had just started to tell the story of the Three Little Pigs, complete with actions and noises off, when Herself entered the room. She was duly ushered into the circle of dozing toddlers and captivated four-year-old princes, wizards and princesses. She politely declined.

"Now children, would somebody like to go and sit beside Mrs X, our visitor for today?" Jennie had the devil in her. She chose Gemma, Harry and Kylie.

Little did Mrs X suspect that she was about to see integration, special needs and inclusion - in spades.

As the house of straw was being blown to oblivion by the combined breath of 20 eager youngsters, Mrs X detected a foul and pestilent odour emanating from her new-found companions. Sniff followed sniff. It was familiar. The Suited One tried in vain to attract Jennie's attention. Jennie saw her, but ignored her. She was turning a shade of green, and was in obvious discomfort.

She leant forward and tapped Gemma on the shoulder. "And what's your name little girl?" The voice was grating to say the least.

"Gemma."

"Gemma, what's that smell? Does someone have a problem?"

"Naw miss, it's Kylie. She aye does that when we have banana yoghurt."

"Does what?" she asked in bewilderment. Stupid inspector.

"She's **** hersel'." The inspector left the circle, and we swore we saw a smile on Jennie's face. Jennie quickly made the exit signal whose meaning we all knew.

Later that day, at the debrief stage, Jennie was reprimanded for the lack of attention to pupil comfort. Without flinching, Jennie turned to the section on early language development.

She pointed out that Kylie came from the most disadvantaged of backgrounds, and her very survival to date had been nothing short of miraculous. She got herself up, dressed and reached nursery in time for opening. She had no adult to accompany her. She was popular, happy and contented. She was loved, respected and cared for by everyone in our nursery. We gave her everything she lacked at home.

By now, Jennie's voice was moving up through the decibel levels. "And you have the nerve to tell me that you saw a lack of attention to comfort? Ask Kylie where her clothes came from. Ask Kylie who feeds her. And another thing . . ."

The inspector waited for the coup de grace. It came. "Did you know the past tense of that verb when you were four?" Game, set and match to Jennie.

Jennie stormed out of the debrief. I almost burst out laughing. The Couldn't Care Less Commission scribbled furiously. I saw words like "hostile" and "rude" being put down.

As they proceeded to tell my staff and me where we were going wrong, the door burst open. It was Kylie's mum, Lorna. Lorna was a former pupil of St Pats. She was 18 and had three kids under five. She shouted across the room: "Thanks Mrs M for sorting her oot again. That b******'s belted me again last nicht. Ah'm aff tae ma mither's fur a few days."

Care? In the words of Rab C Nesbitt: "I'll give you care, boy".

I imagined Mrs X and all the oils of Arabia trying to remove the odour of the post-banana yoghurt runs.

Bridget McElroy

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