Why lumber youth with childcare jobs?

6th February 1998 at 00:00
Does memory play tricks? I only recall ancient-looking teachers from primary school days - white hair in a tight bun, thick woollen stockings and sometimes a tawse in a box, carefully wrapped with string. They couldn't have been as old as they seemed, for decades later, many still bustled the streets.

Today, my primary kid and her friends benefit from a much wider age-range of adult contact - in class, at after-school club or parentteacher association events, teachers who look 18 to me, teenagers swinging them upside-down, "stay-at-home" mothers with amazing craft skills. Beyond the school gates we meet kind, imaginative, interesting people I wish were involved by the education or after-school systems: the retired lollipop man up the road, the zany old lady neighbour whose jokes delight children, our own active 87-year-old journalist aunt.

I was driven to reflect on the gifts people from the Seven Ages of Man (or Woman) could bring to children after hearing that our government intends to train thousands of 18 to 24-year-olds as childcare assistants, under the Welfare to Work scheme. Especially to staff the expansion of after-school clubs which they also plan for the near future.

Now it's true that young people desperately need work and training; true that our struggling, ill-resourced after-school clubs urgently need more places and more staff; true that many more women could take paid work if they had good childcare. But this seems an ill-conceived idea to solve several problems at a stroke - policy-making by the laws of convenience.

Leave aside that out of school care isn't just a mechanism to involve more women in the labour force - especially those difficult single mothers whose welfare budget needs to be slashed (and already has been). Out of school care has to be of high quality for children, so that they benefit.

It is not a training establishment, where people can learn from their mistakes at children's expense. Or at the expense of parent committees who must run the clubs under the present system - busy, working people whose evening meetings leave them even less time with their own children.

Besides, the clubs should be equally open to stay-at-home mothers, who need space for some independent life.

Leave aside that six months' training for the young people is quite inadequate, that the work they're likely to find afterwards is poorly paid and insecure. Most important is the question society is at last beginning to ask about the stressful slog of the nanny and au pair industries.

Why on earth do we assume young people, just gratefully fleeing childhood themselves, not yet parents, necessarily want to work with kids? Or that they are the best-equipped people to do so? The politics of convenience risks pushing many young men and women down a path for which they have little zest. It also brings more headaches for child protection.

The best people to work in after-school clubs are those who actively want to be there. Many of these could also do with the cash from part-time work: it's not just teenagers who have been pushed down the employment queue. I'd like to see my child and other children learning from all ages of people in after-school care and holiday schemes. People encouraged in for their diverse talents and experience; people who would use that training, contribute their own good ideas to it, or even run their own schemes afterwards.

They could include teenagers wearing energetic children out with crazy sports; women with young kids of their own; music-makers, storytellers and dramatists of all ages and ethnic cultures; people who challenge stereotypes of disability; 70-year-olds teaching old games, dances and traditional songs, telling vivid tales of the area 50 years ago - or, of course, taking crazy sports.

Sarah Nelson

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