Sunday, February 03, 2013

British nursery education changes won't benefit children or parents (?)

The mother below quite misses the point.  She complains of the high cost of childcare but opposes what the government has just done to reduce that cost:  Allow somewhat fewer teachers per child.  And the imposition of an educational qualification is extremely modest.  A GCSE (junior High School) pass is very low level.  It will keep out the illiterate but not many others

My four-year-old daughter won a major award at school last Friday. She attends the nursery at her primary school, which is rated as “outstanding” by Ofsted, so the staff there clearly know a thing or two about laying the foundations for academic success.

My little girl stood up in front of all the other children at assembly and marched to the stage to collect her “Star of the Week” certificate from the headteacher. But what was it for, I hear the competitive mothers of Britain cry. After all, a shake-up of nursery care has just been announced, so lessons, quite literally, need to be learnt.

Presumably my daughter was given recognition for reading? Reading independently? For reading À la recherche du temps perdu in the original French? Or for writing, perhaps? Penning poetry, or inking her name in Mandarin?

Let us remember that education minister Liz Truss has just announced that child-care workers must have a PhD in non-Euclidean geometry (all right, a GCSE in maths) so that their pre-school charges can be given a proper grounding in the three Rs before they can walk.

By way of an incentive to nursery bosses, staff who have a grade C or above in maths and English at GCSE will be allowed to look after more children than those without these qualifications, as everyone knows that a sound working knowledge of Great Expectations is fundamental to finger-painting and the effective teaching of Hairy Maclary studies.

It would be funny if it weren’t so serious. It is an exceedingly rare working mother – even in these egalitarian times, guilt is still the preserve of the distaff side – who doesn’t agonise over her child-care choice at some point. Concerns about cost, quality, the calibre of staff, the consumption of vegetables, the exposure to books and the access to out-of-doors play areas come together in a Gordian knot (usually, located deep in the pit of the stomach).

Of these, the financial outlay is often the most pressing anxiety. And the truth is that, despite the fact that many nurseries employ teenagers with a level two child-care qualification on as little as £7 an hour, the cost to parents can run to £1,000 or more a month for a full-time place.

In Europe, on average, a family spends 13 per cent of its income on child care; in Britain that burden stands at 27 per cent. No wonder then, that a study by the politically independent think tank the Resolution Foundation, published in October last year, found women were being unwillingly forced out of the labour market; figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development show that the UK ranks 16th in the league table of mothers going back to work, with 67.1 per cent, compared with 73.6 per cent in France and 84 per cent in Denmark.

“It’s hardly worth a typical second earner going out to work more than a couple of days a week, because the family will be barely better off,” is the verdict of Vidhya Alakeson, deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation.

“This is a serious concern because increasing the level of female employment is one of the key routes through which family living standards have increased. We need major change in our child-care system to ensure that work is always worthwhile – and that working more hours or a pay rise results in higher take-home pay.”

If the Government really wants mothers to get back to work – and clearly it does – it is going entirely the wrong way about it. Although there has been much talk of child-care tax breaks for working parents, the logical thing would be for the Government to pump money directly into the supply side of child care, so that costs plummet. That might not be ideologically palatable to a Conservative-led coalition, but it would be a genuine vote-winner among women, for whom having to pay most of their salary to a nursery or childminder sticks in the craw.

On the networking site Mumsnet, the Government’s suggestion that its proposed overhaul of nursery provision will make child-care cheaper has been met with blanket scepticism – and six pages of posts.

“I hear the idea is only nurseries with well- qualified staff will be able to raise ratios. That’s good,” writes Mumsnetter TiggyD. “Good staff will be more sought after, meaning their wages should go up. That’s good. Wonder how the wages will be paid? By not reducing fees, at a guess.”

Whether the girls who work at the nation’s nurseries have a couple of GCSEs to their name or not is a less immediate worry to British parents than the changes to staff ratios; the current one staff member for every four two-year-olds will change to one carer for every six, while one adult will be allowed to look after four babies instead of three.

Clearly no slouch at maths herself, TiggyD goes on to share the following calculation with other users. “There are times when numbers of staff count. Cuddles and hugs will drop by 12 per cent for a baby, as they will have 25 per cent of a staff member each as opposed to 33 per cent,” she says. “It’s harder to keep an eye on more children so bites, pushes and toy-snatching will increase. Eighteen toddlers will have to be led out of a burning building by just three staff instead of five.”

If that has an alarmist ring, an even shriller note is being sounded warning of the danger that “child-care will go the way of nursing”. Just as nursing graduates have been accused of balking at the messier, more hands-on aspects of patient care, so there is a fear that requiring higher qualifications may attract candidates into child care who do not necessarily have the emotional skills crucial to caring for babies and toddlers.

“I want a child carer with compassion, common sense, patience, kindness in abundance and a loving caring and warm personality,” says stormforce10. “If they have an A in GCSE maths, I really do not care. I want them to have enough time to give DS [my dear son] the love and security he needs. I want his nappy changed regularly and as required. I want him not to be battling with other babies for affection.

“I want him to be fed and cuddled. I want his tears wiped if he falls and his face wiped after he eats. I want him to be secure, happy and safe. Please drop these silly plans for the sake of our children.”

No sensible mother will be motivated to return to the office if the price is dropping her baby off in a super-nursery where reading, writing and numeracy are promoted at the expense of a 12 per cent reduction in cuddle time.

Some infants, of course, enjoy letters and numbers at an early age. It’s a rare youngster who doesn’t love a cracking good story about a fire engine or a kindly tree or a Gruffalo. But let them discover these things at their own pace; to effectively rob them of their childhood at the age of two by pushing them towards a school curriculum would be unforgivable.

The age of four, however, is an excellent point at which to show promise, as attested by my own daughter. Her state school nursery most definitely has its priorities right. Which is why she won her “Star of the Week” award for “Learning How to Skip From One Foot To Another”.

And hand on heart, Mrs Truss, I couldn’t be prouder if she’d bagged a Baccalaureate.


OH: Students’ duct tape joke could get teacher fired

I have been waiting for an update on this piece of pettiness but nothing has appeared since late last month

A middle school teacher in Ohio could be fired for posting a picture of what she calls a shared joke with her students online.

WEWS-TV reported on Tuesday that Melissa Cairns has been placed on leave without pay for posting a picture last October of her students with duct tape over their mouths on Facebook with the caption, “Finally found a way to get them to be quiet!!!”

Cairns said the picture was the result of one students’ playfully putting tape over her mouth after Cairns offered her some to help fix a broken binder. Some of the girl’s classmates, Cairns said, were amused by the display and joined in. But a colleague reportedly saw the picture on Cairns’ Facebook page and alerted management.

“Do I feel that this one, stupid mistake should cost me the last 10 years of all the good I’ve done? Absolutely not,” said Cairns.

Despite taking the picture down at the request of her school’s principal, the Akron School Board voted to fire Cairns earlier this month.

“Students are protected under federal law and they have certain protections,” said board President Jason Haas. “Not knowing all the circumstances, it looked like that potentially violates those protections.”

Her attorney told the station she would file an appeal on Tuesday.


Student loans: Another federal debacle

Even if you aren’t considering going back to school, you’re about to pick up the tab for a college education. The same cast of characters that brought you the housing crisis, a post office hemorrhaging billions, and a school system that gets more expensive as it gets worse has now brought us a student loan crisis.

A recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says the value of student loans outstanding is now close to $1 trillion, making it the largest and fastest-growing share of non-mortgage consumer borrowing. Unlike other forms of consumer debt, which have fallen, total student loans have grown by 75 percent since 2007.

The federal government has pushed relentlessly to expand access to college by cutting out the private sector in loan programs and by altering repayment terms for borrowers via executive order. It bears an eerie resemblance to the obsession with homeownership that got us into our current straits. 

Like potential homeowners, students have been encouraged to borrow with impunity. It continues to intensify: The Department of Education lent $133 billion in 2010 and $157 billion in 2011. Late payment trends are also following a similar pattern to the subprime mortgage crisis. With new programs geared toward “income based” repayment plans and forbearance timetables, it is increasingly likely that the federal government and thus the taxpayer will eventually be on the hook for tens of billions of dollars of loans that will never be repaid.

This phenomenon has real social consequences. With two-thirds of college graduates possessing student loan debt of at least $25,000 and 53 percent of recent college graduates either unemployed or acutely underemployed, unproductive economic dislocations—putting off the purchase of a home or delaying marriage, for example—are rampant.

This misguided policy approach has produced more than a student loan bubble that could damage the economy. It has also triggered an inflationary spiral in tuition costs and provided college bureaucracies with incentives to become bloated and inefficient. As one critical report recently stated, “In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate—executives would lose their jobs.”

The billions of dollars sloshing around the system have triggered the classic definition of inflation: Too much money is chasing too few goods. It has also lent further credence to Milton Friedman’s claim that inflation is always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon. Since 2000, tuition at public, four-year colleges has risen by an inflation-adjusted 72 percent, and over the past 25 years, it has increased at an annual rate 6 percentage points higher than the cost of living. When prices rise, government loans increase to effectively subsidize the difference, allowing colleges to continue increasing tuition, thus completing the cycle.

One beneficiary is online education. While it will never completely replace the college campus, current economic realities make it a legitimate alternative. It provides an avenue of highly individualized instruction at a fraction of the cost of the traditional model.

Overspending on higher education has reached a tipping point. Just as aggressive government intervention in the housing market led to a variety of economic distortions and ultimately cost the taxpayers billions, the student loan problem is destined for similar results unless substantial reforms are implemented.

The government must exit the lending arena and be replaced by an active and innovative private market with legitimate underwriting standards. A variety of arrangements would be possible in this environment, including contractual agreements between businesses and students that revolve around the future employment and cash flows of the borrower.

Before we can get to that point, however, it is essential that we grasp as a nation how unproductive and costly it is when federal authorities try to dictate outcomes by aggressively intervening in the marketplace.

We must return to first principles and continuously ask ourselves what the proper role of government is in a free society.


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