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To build a better childcare system, rethink who 'counts' as a childcare worker

When we talk about childcare, we often forget about those on the sidelines of the workforce. Veronica Deutsch, formerly of the Nanny Solidarity Network, calls for better protections for less prominent providers of childcare – childminders, nannies, and au pairs.

Written by:
Veronica Deutsch
Date published:
Reading time:
8 minutes

Early Childhood Education and Care (ECEC) advocacy groups often tout workforce regulation and increased flexibility for families as panaceas for the childcare crisis. But these proposals disregard how draconian Hostile Environment policies block many workers' ability to register with Ofsted, and how existing models of 'flexible' childcare, such as private day nurseries, tend to pay the poorest salaries.

To create a fairer childcare market, we must address the punitive migration policies that preclude workers from regulation and reconceptualise who 'counts' as a childcare worker. By eschewing the capitalistic for-profit models in favour of dynamic and community-based caring solutions, we can deliver solutions to the care crisis that encompass all participants in the childcare market.

Who's holding the baby?

Childcare workers are a historically difficult workforce to organise, and therefore lag behind other workers in terms of pay and rights. Bound by a sense of duty to the children in their care, workers can struggle to take part in industrial action. For those who aren't settings-based (this includes childminders, nannies, au pairs, and maternity nurses), isolation and lack of a collective workplace can make mobilising against poor pay and conditions challenging. Other paid caregivers, such as foster care workers, are often left out of the debate entirely, leaving us with a patchy understanding of who makes up this vital workforce.

For those in the in-home workforce, such as au pairs, organising is doubly complicated by their exclusion from worker status: au pairs are not currently entitled to the minimum wage due to the 'family worker exemption', despite many au pairs working 40+ hours a week for as little as £1 per hour (and despite the government agreeing to scrap the exemption a year ago).

Campaigns such as the Early Years' Alliance's 'weareeducators' provide a vital mouthpiece for early years professionals; however, language like 'early years professional' can exclude workers in the sector facing dire conditions from being included under the 'childcare worker' umbrella. Not everyone carrying out care labour is necessarily a 'professional'. Indeed, many of them are (very young, often teenage) women without any training, being exploited by families who themselves are desperate for a better solution. These workers are still very much deserving of fair pay and recognition. We need a way to broaden the childcare debate to include these workers' voices so that we can design more realistic and comprehensive reforms.

Regulation: silver bullet or sticking plaster?

Widespread regulation of the childcare workforce — that is, ensuring that all childcare workers are suitable to provide care via compulsory DBS checks, first aid qualifications, and registration with Ofsted — is often touted as the solution to poor pay and conditions. Currently, nurseries and childminders are regulated by Ofsted, while nannies can join voluntarily.

We know that migrant women are overrepresented in the care sector and, while official statistics are lacking on the exact percentage of migrants working as in-home childcare workers, multiple sources put the number of in-home childcare workers at over 110,000, yet in comparison, only 9,100 nannies are registered with Ofsted. While certainly appealing in terms of safeguarding, regulation could make things worse for these women - regulation without concurrently redressing punitive migration policies will push casual arrangements into the shadows.

This, in turn, makes it harder for workers to access training or first aid, which puts the children in their care at risk. It also makes it harder for workers to come forward when exploited or abused, meaning worse conditions for workers and poorer quality care for their charges.

Childcare for every family

Due to the informality of much of the childcare sector, we need to dig deeper than just the 'flexible' and 'affordable' markers of quality provision to truly understand where in the UK childcare is working and for whom.

We know that the most deprived areas tend to have the least flexible care, uneven access to affordable places, and higher rates of financial instability among settings. In contrast, more affluent neighbourhoods tend to have more care available. Childcare Sufficiency Assessments (CSAs) from local authorities help us see these inequalities, but they only give us half the picture. Flexible care, such as private nurseries and workers operating via online platforms, are more common in wealthier areas but they also exemplify some of the most inadequate conditions in the industry. In London, Kensington & Chelsea is home to particularly shocking worker exploitation and abuse cases, and many earn as little as £1 per hour. In contrast, deprived areas like Tower Hamlets and Hackney demonstrate some of the best examples we have of community-based care: Fernbank and Hillside children's centres constitute two of the few remaining children's centres in the UK, while initiatives like Hackney Playbus offer mobile play opportunities and support to families most in need.

A system that cares

We can't talk about overhauling the childcare sector without discussing funding. Indeed, many have already highlighted the importance of expanding provision, like the New Economics Foundation’s proposal of a Childcare Infrastructure Fund, as well as changing the relationship between work and care through flexible working and better parental leave policies. But while the Government recently teased at expanding the 'free hours' deal for families, a significant funding injection to the sector looks unlikely in the near future. So, beyond funding, how can we take the first steps towards better childcare?

Other countries point us towards what's possible: in 2015, Boston-based domestic workers group MataHari Justice successfully campaigned to deliver full workplace rights and protections for in-home childcare workers. Back in the UK, pioneering cooperative nurseries like Grasshoppers and (the now-closed) Friendly Families help demonstrate the benefits of parent-led, collaborative care.

Cooperative childcare is not a new concept and was a popular solution to the childcare struggles of the 1970s and 1980s. As more women entered the workforce, campaign-led community nurseries like Maxilla Nursery Centre proliferated in response to the lack of childcare provision available. These initiatives were funded by local authorities and worked in tandem with social services to ensure the best outcomes for families.

At the same time, childminder working groups like the Tower Hamlets Under 5s emerged as groups to organise group training sessions and lobby social services for increased support. Some examples of these actions, like Grasshoppers, are still operating today, and while there are certainly questions about how to ensure cooperative care is sustainable with parents being so time-poor, these providers give us an insight into a kinder care market. The New Economics Foundation's 'Click Here for Care' proposes a similar cooperative model for the care platforms used by nannies and au pairs and mirrors the wildly successful BeyondCare Coop in the US: a migrant-led cooperative connecting fully-qualified and supported childcare workers with families while ensuring they are paid a living wage.

We should look to three priorities to make sure the childcare system is working for all workers:

  1. Develop a clear, intersectional analysis of the care workforce as it exists today

We need a clearer idea of what the childcare workforce looks like today. Mapping the sector through engaging with those with lived experience, grassroots groups, and trade union branches will help us design more inclusive policies that get to the heart of the issues plaguing the sector and address the retention crisis.

  1. Ensure that all workers in the sector have access to training and education, regardless of immigration status

If the ‘family worker exemption’ has shown us anything, ignoring workers in the ‘grey economy’ in the hope that regulation will push them out puts children and workers more at risk. We need to abolish the Hostile Environment policies that criminalise workers with insecure status so that we can ensure that the Continuing Professional Development (CPD), first aid, and DBSs that protect children are accessible to all workers regardless of status. In practice, this means reinstating the defunct Au pair visa (while concurrently delivering on the Government's commitment to bring au pairs under minimum wage regulations, to ensure that employers don't exploit this pathway), offering a path to regularisation for all childcare workers that isn't tied to a sponsor or minimum salary, and ending data sharing between regulatory bodies such as Ofsted and the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) and the Home Office so more workers can register and attend crucial training sessions without fear of deportation.

3. Remove private provision and move towards new models of ownership across all forms of childcare

We need to end the domination of big nursery chains in favour of cooperative nurseries, with parents and workers sitting on the decision-making boards, and encourage cooperative childcare platforms, led by nannies and au pairs collectively. Childminders already talk together behind the scenes to share work, recommend families they've liked working with, and share links to resources and advice on best practices — why not formalise this so that they can work in tandem with their local authorities to address the isolation felt by much of the workforce, deliver training, and support those entering the profession?

Gig platforms such as Bubble have emerged in the past ten years, subjecting workers to an algorithm that encourages a 'race to the bottom' for their hourly rates. Rolling back the control these platforms have over workers' livelihoods in favour of their collective participation in designing and regulating provision would help improve working conditions across the board. These are bold proposals, but they can be done. We can put the power in the hands of parents and workers by moving away from childcare as a private service and towards collective participation in this essential social infrastructure.

What happens next?

Care has been unevenly formalised and regulated over the past fifty years, and this means that no one policy change can encapsulate all workers or, indeed, provide them all with better pay and conditions. If we want to see childcare system reform that encompasses the breadth of its participants, we must start by acknowledging who 'counts' as a childcare worker and, indeed, how variable their conditions are depending on migration status and type of provision. Bringing these voices to the fore allows us to move away from proposals that narrowly centre on one kind of provider in favour of radical childcare reform that lifts all workers equally. In doing so, we can secure a better deal for workers that delivers quality care for families.

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