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Lisa McInerney: Caring for children is a tough job - so why don't we value it more?

Childcare is more of a vocation than a 9-to-5 – but many workers are still underpaid and underqualified, writes Lisa McInerney.

Lisa McInerney

I WAS LUCKY enough to be able to stay at home with my daughter until she was five years old, and so outside of a stint at Montessori, she didn’t require third-party care.

We were getting along famously, so I offered to look after my preschool-age niece and nephew too. It’d be fun, I thought. Company for the smallie and a favour to my big brother, from whom I was still craving the regard he showed Bruce Dickinson. And sure childcare is easy! It’s informed by instinct, so you can’t go wrong.

Imagine, then, my horror when I discovered childcare as a profession to be a startlingly different kettle of fish to motherhood. It is intense and it is exhausting. Leaving the house for a trip to the playground required a level of military precision that would have made Napoleon take to the fainting couch. Leaving the playroom for a trip to the toilet wasn’t much easier. Everything from making myself a cup of tea to listening to Ray D’Arcy’s mid-morning jibber-jabber took on a plethora of facets unheard of: rather than presiding over the adorable play of a trio of chubby tots, I found myself slave to the caterwauling, bodily functions and rudimentary machinations of three very different little people, none of whom gave a single fig for the needs of their companions or the sagacity of intelligent routine.

I think I lasted a month.

Anyone who works with children will tell you that it’s a difficult job and it’s one you have to be able for, not just by having an even temperament and an affinity with kids, but also by being knowledgeable about childhood development and the constant challenges faced by caregivers. Now add to that the required expertise in health and safety practices – nutrition, first aid, environment – and the leadership skills required to head up a team of childcare workers (or even just a little battalion of kids) and you get an occupation closer to a vocation than a 9-to-5.

We need a strong childcare sector – but it is still massively undervalued

Last week’s Prime Time exposé, A Breach of Trust, in which a number of crèches were shown failing to uphold essential childcare standards (alongside basic human decency), plunged Irish parents into crisis. With both social and economic patterns necessitating working parent families, a robust childcare sector is crucial. And yet the sector suffers from a dichotomy of disregard and commercialisation: care is undervalued, and its being undervalued has led to capitalist exploitation of a sector that should really be beyond manipulation.

Not surprising, then, that the Prime Time report has also drawn overdue attention onto childcare positions advertised on the JobBridge scheme, several of which do not require qualifications.

It’s difficult to discern what practical use these positions would be to anyone outside of the management of these facilities; certainly, an internship which neither requires nor leads to qualifications doesn’t benefit applicants, and parents who fork over significant fees so that their children receive top notch care will hardly be soothed by the notion that the facility in question either cannot afford to pay qualified staff (so where do those fees go?) or place no value on qualified staff. And so we get situations as revealed in Prime Time’s programme: profitable childcare facilities placing such scant value on their duties as to employ people who are under-qualified, underpaid, and frequently ill-suited to their task.

And it’s an important task. Hugely important. In fact, where did we get this notion that looking after the most vulnerable people in our society is an insignificant task? Is it because it is seen as domestic work, something regretfully farmed out when women marched into industry? Is it because that traditional feminine role is seen as something that comes naturally to a largely female workforce, and so therefore any mug with a kindly heart could do it? The disregard displayed towards childcare as a career choice – in the minimal qualifications required by many employers or the blatant flouting of staffing level guidelines as exposed by Prime Time – is more than unfortunate; it is unacceptable. Caring for vulnerable people – children, people with disabilities, the elderly – is neither unskilled nor unimportant labour.

Childcare has been commercialised in Ireland

Which brings us to the other side of that above-mentioned dichotomy: the commercial exploitation of the care sector. That third-party care is a necessity in our society, and that it requires skill in its suppliers, means that carers deserve to be paid a qualified wage and therefore, if the State cannot socialise care, that the private facilities providing that care deserve to make a profit. You cannot dispute that privilege without dismissing the importance of professional care.

All the same, the healthy and safe expansion of the childcare sector cannot happen without respect afforded to its workforce, and that’s what we saw, with terrible clarity, last week in Ireland. Our care ‘industry’ (does anyone else cringe at that term?), like any other, is open to economic mismanagement, but when corners are cut here the damage is massive: to families, to staff… and to the vulnerable people so dependent on it.

It’s tempting to point trembling fingers at belligerent, or lazy, or careless staff after A Breach Of Trust, but it’s important to remember that the vast majority of Ireland’s childcare workers are qualified, empathic, intelligent… and undervalued. The light shone by the Prime Time team on the failures the childcare ‘industry is susceptible to brings one inescapable truth to the fore: the monetisation of care is something that must be carefully handled, and we cannot guarantee that abuses of trust will be forever vanquished by one television special if we don’t tackle the culture they flourished in.

If minimum wage and a negative professional environment isn’t good enough for the people who manage our accounts or conduct our marketing campaigns, it’s not good enough for the people who care for our kids.

Read more of Lisa McInerney’s columns here >

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Lisa McInerney

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