Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Vocations, professions and the tentacles of Ofsted

In the good old days - let's say, in the first 30 years of the NHS - people became nurses because they were good at caring for people. It wasn't necessarily a "profession" - you didn't need many paper qualifications; you didn't need the paper trail of continuing professional development (CPD), because most skills you would learn informally as you went along. It was a "vocation" - you did it because it was something you were able to do, you enjoyed doing it, and you generally did it well.

That started to change in the Eighties, with the introduction of nursing degrees. Doubtless many nurses feel more "positive" about themselves because they have a degree - but has it improved the standard of nursing care? I suspect that many people's experience of the NHS would suggest the opposite. Should nurses have felt "negative" about themselves before because they were in an "unprofessional", "vocational" job? Of course not - because as with all such jobs, they are vital for society. Conversely, a significant number of people who didn't want the hassle of further formal education, or CPD (and yes, it is a hassle if all you want is a few days work per week to bring in some money), were turned off the idea of nursing as a career.

Nursery schools were another vocational workplace - albeit often only temporarily. Mums who were just getting children into school would get eight hours a week work for a pre-school - helping children get used to being in a larger group, perhaps teaching them a bit about how to read and write, and so on. In return, they'd start to get back into a "working" frame of mind after a career break of several years, and earn a bit of money.

Of course, nursery provision was hit-and-miss ten years ago - the quality of care and education that you got from different providers was quite varied. Doubtless it needed some regulation. The form of regulation that was chosen was to bring it into the educational system - the regulator became Ofsted, and nursery education became part of the "Foundation Stage". (If you have children in Reception at school, did you know that they aren't on Key Stage 1 yet? Foundation Stage actually covers pre-school environments and reception year at school. KS1 is year 1 and 2.)

No longer was the aim simply to make sure that a pre-school was a safe environment in which children could learn to be part of a wider community. Now it was part of the educational system. It is subject to Ofsted inspections - yes, those things that can shut down schools - albeit under a somewhat different regime. And management of nursery settings became something that required qualifications - NVQ's, diplomas.

Of course, most people don't start working in pre-schools because they expect to make a career out of it - so the traditional pre-school, run by a group of sympathetic mums is probably disappearing as we speak. Instead, pre-schools will be run by people who have done nursery education qualifications in colleges - but who are probably not parents. The vocational role replaced by the professional role, again.

The same thing happened to classroom assistants. The old idea of a mum or dad using a few hours a week to get into the school, help out in the chemistry department, or clean paint pots, is fading. Ofsted expects teachers to have strategies to use classroom assistants, and the expectation is also that classroom assistants will do NVQ's, and be given formal roles within the school.

Well, now it's happening to childminding. Originally, childminding wasn't really a job. If you were a mum who was good with children, and had your own children at home anyway, then why not come to an arrangement with other mums who wanted to work part time? It was a really neat, informal system, that worked really well.

But those innocent days are over. You were expected to register before, but now you have to register with - you guessed it, Ofsted. You have to meet standards, so you are inspected by them as well. Yes, that's right - Ofsted now also come into the homes of childminders. Here is a flavour of how Ofsted see this.
The National Standards are a set of 'outcomes' that providers should aim to achieve. Ofsted will expect providers to demonstrate how they achieve each of the standards. The purpose of this guidance, therefore, is to help providers to meet the standards. It also explains how Ofsted Childcare Inspectors will register and inspect against the National Standards. Each standard has supporting criteria which give pointers about how it can be met. Providers must have regard to these criteria when deciding how they will meet the standard. In addition to meeting the National Standards, the provider must also meet a set of regulations. These regulations are included in this guidance. The guidance contains a few examples of good practice.
Yes, that refers to childminders, not to secondary schools. Oh, and for good measure, by 2015, childminders will be expected to complete a diploma in childminding. Once again, the aim is to move from something that was vocational to something that is professional.

To an extent, I understand this. Classroom assistants, pre-schools and increasingly childminders are paid by the state, either directly or through the tax system. It makes sense for the state to ensure that people aren't simply riding the gravy train - though a childminder is likely to be getting £10 per hour, whereas the unregulated consultants that have multiplied in the last ten years may be getting that per minute!

But what will be the effect of this? Do I actually want a childminder who can jump through a series of educational hoops - both for herself, and the environment she intends to care for my children in? Actually, I don't. In the same way that what I really want in a pre-school is a safe, happy environment in which my child can get used to being in a large group of children, what I want from a childminder is a place where my children can be looked after that feels like a normal family home, preferably close to my house, preferably with children around the age of my children. And that's all.

What is my point? Firstly, we are looking at Ofsted regulating children's lives away from home from birth to 16. That is an extraordinary level of influence for one government agency. This gives me cause for concern. Ofsted say:
We inspect and regulate to achieve excellence in the care of children and young people, and in education and skills for learners of all ages .... in England. Their educational, economic and social well-being will promote our success as a country.
This isn't simply an educational issue - and indeed, the focus with initiatives like "Every Child Matters" has been far broader than education. However, who inspects the inspectors? Who decides what "educational, economic and social well-being" looks like? This needs to be a discussion held in the public domain, not one lost in a quango.

Secondly, professionalising jobs won't necessarily improve the quality of the work done. It may simply restrict supply - and hence, in Keynesian fashion, raise prices.

Finally, this is a plea for people to recognise the value of vocational work. As a Christian, I believe that people's dignity is inherent in their humanity, not in the money they earn or the qualifications that they have. But you don't have to be a Christian to believe this, just human. I could put some really impressive letters after my name, but I don't. If you don't respect me as a human being, then I'm not interested in your respect for the things that I have done.

By professionalising nursing, pre-schools, classroom assistants and childminding, we as a society are saying that we don't value the people doing those things simply as they are - we are suggesting that they are more valuable if they have a diploma or a degree. But the role they play in society is as crucial as that played by any other worker. I don't need a university professor to look after my pre-school children, or a brain surgeon to dress my wounds after an accident, or (for that matter) an engineering graduate to unblock my drains, or an Olympic weight lifter to sweep the streets. But I need somebody to do it!