Nannies are not all like Mary Poppins. | Women's Agenda

Nannies are not all like Mary Poppins.

Nannies. Such a wholesome word. It conjures images of everyone’s favourite nanny, Mary Poppins or at least a grandmotherly type there to patch scraped knees and serve up steaming bowls of chicken soup.

Yesterday in announcing a trial of a government subsidised nanny program for 10,000 children to be cared for by 4000 nannies, Minister for Social Services Scott Morrison no doubt has this sort of image of a nanny in mind.

But is being cared for by a nanny in the best interests of children? And who is going to safeguard the interests of the probably young women (nannies must be at least 18 years old) who will be employed under the scheme?

Australia has had a few systems of home based carers for many years. But what is being trialled is different than what we have in one key way. The key difference is in the qualifications of those undertaking the work. Family Day Care Educators who currently look after children in their (the educator’s) own homes, are part of a highly regulated system of education and care designed to ensure that children receive the best quality care possible. Family Day Care Educators all hold a qualification – a minimum of a Certificate III in Early Education and Care.

Some people, including some parents, don’t believe that those minding children need any formal qualifications. People talk about just wanting someone who is caring, someone who loves children. And yes, these things are important. But increasingly as we learn about how children’s brains are built, and as we learn about what influences the quality of the care they receive, we know that when children are cared for outside of the family, qualifications matter.

Other countries, such as the UK and the Scandinavian countries have looked at the research and are moving more and more to the provision of universal systems of play based early education for children to amplify the learning they receive at home. It makes sense when you realise that 85% of a child’s brain growth happens in the first five years of life. It also makes sense when you look at the findings of research fields like epigenetics, which show that it is not just the old nature/nurture debates we need to look at. The actual environments that children are in, in the crucial first few years of life can influence their genetic makeup by turning on or off genes.

We know that parents engage their children from birth, in a myriad of ways. This engagement by talking to their children, reading and playing teaches the child on a minute by minute basis. When parents are at work it is vital that this engagement continues to happen.  That is where trained educators come in. Their training gives them the skills to interact on a deep level with children, to set up engaging play environments through which children learn, and to understand that every act of caring for a child, even a nappy change gives rich teaching opportunities. Yes, some nannies will instinctively know how to do these things. But some will not.

The Minister has announced that the nanny trial will sit outside the existing National Quality Framework (NQF) for Education and Care Services – the majority of our education and care centres sit under this scheme – brought in to ensure improvements to the quality of early education and care received by Australia’s children. The NQF is about increasing the qualifications of early educators and increasing the ratios of educators to children to realistic levels. It has also moved the terminology and concept from childcare to early education and care.

Why has the Minister decided to put nannies outside this system? For two reasons. The first obviously is cost. Untrained carers cost less than trained educators. But the second reason is the scarier one. The Minister has made it clear that he sees provision of childcare almost totally as a means to enable families (read women) to work. He has bought us back to the concept of childcare – somewhere to keep you child safe while you are at work, and away from the more holistic notion of education and care. Yesterday he tweeted that the nanny pilot programme was a “two year trial providing subsidised home care to keep parents in work.” And this is a pity. It is in fact an absolute retrograde step, and puts us out of step with other countries.

So having untrained nannies is not in the best interests of children. It is probably also not in the best interests of the women who will be engaged as nannies without access to the training and qualifications that most other careers have. The Minister has stated they will need to be linked with a provider, but he has also said that they will be lower cost than childcare services. Untrained women, on a short trial program on low wages working by themselves – what part of this sounds good?

It’s hard to think of many jobs you can do with no training these days. Even the young women that currently work on road construction sites holding the Stop and Go signs have to hold an approved traffic controller qualification which involves training and a practical component to hold these signs.

Surely our children deserve at least this much care?

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