Who knew getting childcare could be quite such a minefield? It seems unless you have a conventional job with regular hours, finding suitable childcare is destined to become your full-time job and by the time you’ve found it, you’ve lost whatever vestige of a career you had left before you got pregnant.
I work as a consultant so have different commitments every week. My contracts are booked well in advance but my weeks can range from full-time work away to working 2-3 days from home. When I looked at going back to work, I visited and researched nurseries but they all required you to book at least a term in advance and you had to pick which days you wanted and the hours. And none of the nurseries I visited offered hours that corresponded to a ‘full working day’ in the professional world or had any flexibility from one week to the next.
We looked into child minders but there were none in our area, or they were fully booked months in advance. And again, none of them offered a full working day. So we thought a nanny would be the answer. Having done my research, it seemed that nannies were the pinnacle of all child carers, the ultimate professional, whether in the guise of Mary Poppins, Mrs Doubtfire or Nanny McPhee. Expensive yes, but the ultimate professional and someone you could count on to care for, nurture and stimulate your child, and tend to their needs as an invested, qualified and experienced carer working as a team with you and as part of your household and family.
Eighteen months into our childcare journey, I have come to realise that whatever the standard might have been once (if ever), many nannies are about as far from Mary Poppins as you could imagine. But the biggest issue as far as I can see is that the government is not only doing nothing to remedy this, it is in fact indirectly encouraging the trend through other legislation. Not only that, the government puts a burden on families to understand and apply employment law as it changes and evolves. Any misstep or misunderstanding of the extensive rules and regulations and the ‘employer’ is looking at serious repercussions and potentially an employment tribunal.
There is currently a huge imbalance between the government protection afforded to ‘nannies’ and the qualifications required of someone before they can call themselves a nanny:
On one end of the scale, a so-called nanny is considered an employee and the family taking her on is considered an employer. The parents of the child are legally required to set up a PAYE system for the nanny, pay National Insurance contributions, pension contributions, statutory paid holiday and organise the repayment of any student loans that the nanny might have outstanding. Should that nanny get pregnant, the family is expected to foot the bill for hospital appointments and sickness that lands on work days, and is expected to pay statutory maternity pay, as well as the holiday and other contributions throughout maternity. Some, but not all of that maternity pay will be refunded by the government but not before the parents of the child have paid it, while recruiting and paying for alternative childcare. The family carries the burden for holiday pay, NI contributions and pension not only for the nanny on maternity but whichever nanny stands in for her. If the nanny is sourced through an agency, the family pays a whopping finder’s fee for the nanny (over £2000 for ours). When she then gets pregnant a few months in, they foot another finder’s fee for a replacement or daily charges for a replacement ‘cover’ nanny (£25 per day in our case).
Add to that the loss of time and income and added stress when you’re left high and dry by the nanny and the disruption to the care and welfare of the child.
Don’t get me wrong; I strongly believe women should be protected in the workplace and be free to have children and still be able to continue their careers. And I’m sure the cost detailed above is a burden easily carried by a company or a business. Not so when the ‘employers’ are private individuals and the parents of a small baby; one of whom is ironically battling her own way back into an unforgiving workplace after a maternity break and is relying on a fair and equitable system to support her in her childcare needs.
The issue here is about balance:
While a “nanny” has the full protection of the state at the expense of the family employing her, there is literally no legal regulation for the nannies themselves and no protection for the families of the children they are charged with, the so-called ‘employers’.
As a parent (the ’employer’) you are expected to put your child – the most precious thing in your life – in the care of someone whose only claim to any qualification is what they have put on their CV. To become a nanny, you do not need any childcare qualifications, or experience and there is no legal requirement for you to be registered. In fact there is no legal requirement at all; if you call yourself a nanny, you are a nanny.
You do need to get a DBS (Disclosing and Barring Service) check done and produce a certificate to your employer to show that you do not have a criminal record. But for this all you have to do is complete a 5-minute online application and then wait about a week for your certificate to come through the post. The DBS “helps to prevent unsuitable people from working with vulnerable groups, including children” according to the government website. But there is no vetting or interview or even any requirement to get off your sofa for a face-to-face application. So once you submit the form, and as long as you’ve never been caught doing anything nefarious, you’re in the clear. When I applied to be a school governor, my DBS certificate arrived in the mail less than a week after I filled in the form online. Even the lazy, dishonest and completely uninterested in the real job of nannying will manage to conjure up the energy to enter their name and address onto an online form in between Snapchatting mates or loading their latest selfie.
It is hardly surprising then that there is a glut of young women (I have yet to come across any men) who have no real interest in a career in childcare or education, or in many cases in children full stop – marketing themselves as nannies for what they clearly see as easy and good money. They arrive at interview with no preparation, no idea what activities they might do with the child (“play with her toys?” – when asked how they would plan a 10 hour day) and barely acknowledge the child who’s trotted into the living room mid-interview to show them her favourite toy. They shrug and say they can’t cook when you ask about meals, have never heard of EYFS, and look blankly back at you when you ask what they would do in an emergency (say, if your toddler fell down the stairs head first).
So if you’re at a loose end, think babies are cute and have done some baby-sitting for your little brother, you can call yourself a nanny. The government, it appears, deems that sufficient for the self-proclaimed nanny to be in sole charge of a newborn baby or toddler, drive them to activities, chart their developmental progress, cook them nutritional meals, provide them with a nap routine, provide educational and stimulating games and activities, and have the patience and wherewithal to understand whether it’s a tantrum or genuine pain, and act appropriately if they suspect illness or injury.
Of course, every and any woman can become a mother, regardless of her qualifications and regardless of her capacity to care for a child. But this is a job, and one that is handsomely paid and is afforded all the government’s statutory benefits and protection, so surely that should come with some kind of minimum requirements?
Childminders have been subjected over recent years to increased scrutiny and they are required to meet strict standards and pass regular Ofsted inspections. One of my friends suggested recently that this was a shame as it meant there were fewer and fewer people prepared to ‘jump through the hoops’ to become childminders. That may be so, but I’d rather have a limited and depleted pool of regulated childminders to choose from, who I know will provide the care and service they advertise and whose credentials are monitored by specialist inspectors than enter into the riskiest of lotteries where my daughter’s safety and welfare are the stake.
Regulation and paperwork would not automatically solve the problem and government intervention may not always be the answer. But some level of regulation would at least demonstrate that the government cares as much for the welfare and safety of children as it does about the employment protection of this largely unqualified group of people employed to take care of them. And it would mean those of us who cannot rely on conventional childcare to cover contract or shift work are not having to resort to our ‘gut’ to select someone to invite into our homes and take care of the most precious little things in our lives.