Professor Nutbrown’s Magic Numbers

Professor Cathy Nutbrown, childcare guru and by turns adviser to and critic of the Government, has a problem. You and I know what that problem is. Everybody knows what that problem is. Well-meaning friends and colleagues must have told her, over the years, must have dropped it casually into conversation and hoped it took hold. But did she listen? Not Professor Nutbrown.

We know she didn’t listen because she hasn’t suddenly turned into Professor Brown, or Professor Almond, or Professor Cake. Even Professor Cake would be an improvement, would evoke less sniggering. “Look”, people have been saying to the woman, year after fruitless year, “look, you want to write a sequel to the Brer Rabbit stories, then Nutbrown’ll do just fine. You want to run a vegetarian baked goods empire and it’s as good a name as any. But anything else is a no-go, especially if you want to be taken seriously.” And seriously is how a woman of Cathy Nutbrown’s stature deserves to be taken. She is a Professor, after all (at the University of Sheffield, not Hogwarts), a Professor with some considered and occasionally outspoken views on early-years education. She has important things to say and it behoves us all to listen. But she can’t even be heard above the sniggering.

What she’s told us most recently is that the proposals to relax the ratios for nursery workers to the children they are supervising are a big mistake. She may well be right, too. The bizarre logic from the Government seems to be that nurseries will go on to recruit fewer workers, but workers of a higher quality. There’s some sense in the intention, certainly. Anything that moves childcare away from minimum-wage option towards the genuine profession it should be (and occasionally is) is to be applauded. But does anyone really see the nursery owners looking down at their high-volume low-margin businesses and saying “Hello, here’s a saving, we’ll spend it on staff training”? No? I thought not.

Instead what we’ll get is some nurseries taking advantage of the new rules, spending a pittance of the savings on something they can pretend benefits the children, and upstreaming the rest to the shareholders. Others will keep the ratios precisely as they were and use that to differentiate themselves from the rest. They might increase their prices a little, too, and brand themselves as “elite” or “exceptional”. If I were an owner with two nurseries in the same area (and that does happen), I’d have one of each. Take a position in both ends of the market and clean up.

The apparent result, of course, is “choice”, the forgotten byword of a bygone Government, the promise that only ever lead to disappointment. We already have a divided educational system in this country, and the true result of these proposals is that the two tiers will part company at an even earlier age.

There is a solution for a Government that wants to turn early-years education into something meaningful, even a Government as strapped for cash as this one is. Regulate a little harder. You want high-quality provision to be the expectation rather than a rare and surprising bonus? Then treat nursery education like a utility, make sure money can only come out after the right amount has gone back in, in the right way, to the right places.

And for all we know, that’s exactly what Professor Nutbrown has been telling us, over and over, at the top of her voice. Only we can’t hear it for all the laughter.

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If you liked this, please comment and share, and don’t forget to take a look at some extracts from my soon-to-be-published novel Without Due Care here.

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