I'm a little slow to comment on the heated debate about childcare inginited by recently announced government plans. I've been busy with settling little L into nursery! I've hung around her nursery the last week or so, largely as a spare part but required to stay in case a little cuddle with mum will ease the settling in process (usually it just prolongs it which is a bitter pill to swallow). Some basic maths about childcare struck me whilst sitting in 'the baby room' watching the carers tending to the needs of a group of children between 4 months and around 14 months. This maths makes it blindingly obvious to me (and probably anyone else who has spent time in a nursery) that reducing the number of carers risks damaging the quality of childcare for young children, plunging it below acceptable standards.
My mental arithmetic went like this. The current ratio for staff:babies is 1:3. There were 9 babies at the nursery on little L's first day. 1 carer was changing a nappy, 1 carer was bottle-feeding a baby. Not uncommon tasks in a nursery! That left 1 carer to entertain, calm, sooth, prevent hair pulling, catch when attempting first unsteady steps and generally care for 7 babies. Not a task I'd relish! On little L's first day several babies weren't their cheery selves. 2 were teething. The baby who settled in last week was pretty pissed off after her mum dropped her off. I sat there playing with little L, feeling a little stressed and thinking "it's a good job I'm around today - they've hardly got time for little L".
Putting aside my feelings as an emotional mother on her baby's first day at nursery I realised I couldn't fault their prioritisation. Little L was supposed to be getting used to her the new environment in the safety of my company. And so they left us to get on with it and tended to other needs. Over subsequent days, my confidence in the nursery, gained from experience sending little M there since she was 11 months, was reinforced. The lovely carers, most of whom cared for little M when she started, made sure there were plenty of distractions, cuddles and TLC for a slightly confused little L. But it's a busy place and the students doing work experience are clearly welcome extra pairs of hands when they visit. I'm sure there will be days when the ratio of 1:3 seems insufficient and little L may have to wait her turn for a cuddle. But not too many of those days.
Little M has tested the carers' patience...and the staffing ratios...quite often. Her biting phase was a particularly low point - a classic example of why childcare providers need to be equipped to deal with whatever little people throw at them. Little M wasn't the only one who liked a little nibble on classmates and I was assured this, or other challenging behaviour, was pretty common. The nursery handled it really well, communicating with us so our action at home reinforced theirs. But managing challenging behaviour like this from young children needs attentive, consistent staff. I remember at the time thinking, if they kept a better eye on her she wouldn't do it - it never happened outside nursery. And maybe I was right. Maybe with more staff they would have been able too. But together we addressed the problem and it stopped...eventually. If nursery staff had more children to care for I suspect tackling the problem may have been virtually impossible. Challenging children would no doubt be regularly excluded for the safety of others.
Would I like cheaper childcare? Yes, of course. It feels at times like, until little M goes to school, I'll mostly be working for my pension and to keep a toe-hold in my chosen career. My take home pay certainly seems small after deducting childcare costs for two children at nursery even with the discount I receive now that little M qualifies for her 15 hours free provision (although if you compare childcare costs to our total household income, rather than my salary alone - we're both parents after all - the situation doesn't look quite so bleak). Some people argue that one-to-one care is best for young children - one mother spent a day settling her child in and then immediately fled to the (no doubt expensive) nanny she had clearly already been eyeing up. But I feel happy to leave my children at the nursery. It is good enough. Having immersed myself in the nursery environment for a few days this last week I know that I would not feel happy to leave them if there were fewer staff. Increasing the ratio, in my view, seems impractical and unsafe.
I haven't disected all the options for providing good quality, affordable childcare. And this post is a little off topic for my blog's usual theme. My experiences over the last week were such a timely opportunity to reflect on the government proposals that it seemed daft not to share them. So that's what I've done. I don't have the answer - just a perspective as a parent fresh from the 'baby room' floor.
One thing I am certain of is that any proposals that make lots of women threaten to retreat from the workplace are clearly taking us in the wrong direction. Birgitte Nyborg is much better at making profound statements about women in the working world than I'll ever be - you HAVE to watch Borgen if you haven't already. Her brilliant speech in the last episode, trouncing the opposition party's antiquated bickering about whether a woman makes a good government minister makes it worth it alone. All I can say is that we need to move forwards not backwards. The consensus in media coverage I've seen, and my personal experiences recently, make me feel that the government proposals aren't going to help us do that.