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Last Updated: Thursday, 12 August, 2004, 06:01 GMT 07:01 UK
'I went undercover in children's nurseries'
by Lizz Brown
BBC News

I'm not a parent. Occasionally, I've babysat for friends and family, but the children have been fast asleep in bed.

Real Story reporter Lizz Brown
Lizz Brown posed as a volunteer in three private nurseries
I've never looked after a child on my own - so working undercover as a volunteer nursery nurse was always going to be a journey of discovery, no matter what I found.

To know what to look for I read up on good practice and talked to nursery experts.

I worked in private day care nurseries over a four month period at the beginning of this year.

Despite being new to childcare, and informing the nursery managers of my lack of experience, I was thrown in at the deep end everywhere I worked, looking after young children.

Low wages

On my first day in the first nursery I went into in the Manchester area, I was rocking a two-year-old child to sleep whilst supervised by a part-time student.

Nurseries Undercover: The Real Story
Thursday, 12 August 2004
21:00 BST on BBC One
Another time in a nursery in Teddington, I was asked to take toddlers to the toilet and change nappies. In a nursery in Stoke on Trent, I was left alone with 15 sleeping children on my fourth day.

I always had 24-hour back up though, from two qualified and experienced nursery nurses who were on hand to answer any questions and help me make sure I was doing the right thing.

Most of the people I worked with were nice to me, some of them were really good company. But what I had to look out for was how they behaved towards the kids
But the nurseries I worked in didn't know that.

With low wages, some day care nurseries struggle to fill positions. So I guess it was no surprise that a private business would be happy to take on an unpaid volunteer who seemed enthusiastic and willing.

What surprised me was how little information the nurseries required from me. No one ran any checks on my background before I started work, and everywhere I worked I was left alone with children at some point.

The Teddington nursery, where I worked for two weeks, knew nothing about me except my mobile telephone number for the whole time I was there.

Hard work

I soon realised that to be a good nursery nurse, you have to really want to do the job.

Many are paid little more than the minimum wage and they have to be skilled in everything from good health and hygiene procedures through to what to do to keep two year-olds occupied for eight hours a day.

It's hard work. Those who do a good job deserve a medal. They certainly don't do it for the money or status; they do it for the love of the job and they make a huge difference to children's lives in their most formative years.

I met quite a few carers like that in my time as a volunteer. They were inspirational people who made the experience fulfilling, despite the downside. They showed me that children can have a great time in a private nursery and can really benefit from well trained staff who love their job.

Parents' trust

Most of the people I worked with were nice to me, some of them were really good company. But what I had to look out for was how they behaved towards the kids.

When I saw carers break basic rules and shout or ignore the children, that provided me with a reminder of exactly why I was living the life of a volunteer nursery nurse.

I found it hard to understand how in one nursery, in Stoke on Trent, some staff were unkind to some of the small children. I have no doubt the staff who behaved badly towards them felt stressed but nonetheless some of them were abusing their duty of care.

They had been given the trust of the parents of these children.

Child teased

Carer lifts boy off the floor by his arm at Little Treasures, Festival Way, Stoke
Carer lifts boy off the floor by his arm at Little Treasures, Festival Way, Stoke
Happily, I can say I never witnessed any child being put at serious physical risk.

The worst incidents of physical intervention, at Stoke, involved children aged under two being dragged by one arm, picked up and sat roughly on the floor, and being lifted and carried by one arm and dropped on the carpet.

It was the way some carers spoke to children that was perhaps the most difficult to witness. One nursery nurse, at Stoke, called an 18-month-old child names - including "minger", "imbecile" and "idiot".

It's almost worse when you think that this child probably had no idea what any of these words meant. But he will have understood the tone.

Another 18-month-old boy at Stoke was teased with a biscuit by three different carers - for four minutes - when all the other children had theirs. The reason? Because he wouldn't say "ta".

Ofsted says the majority of nurseries meet standards
Some of the carers I saw exhibiting poor practice were still training but others were fully qualified.

Parents will no doubt be alarmed about some of the things I witnessed. That's because it's difficult for any parent, no matter how astute, to really get a true picture of their child's daily experience at nursery.

It takes an investigation such as ours to uncover the truth. All the nurseries I filmed in were approved by Ofsted, the government watchdog that oversees childcare. You might walk into any one of them and it would seem a perfect environment for young children.

Ofsted says the majority of nurseries meet standards. But one thing I learnt during this investigation is that Ofsted warns nurseries of the month in which it is coming to inspect, and so may not always see the nurseries as they really are.

If any changes follow our investigation, top of the list might be unannounced checks by Ofsted as standard. Ofsted says it is considering what it calls "next to no notice" inspections. At least then some of the problems I saw might be addressed.

Real Story: BBC One, Thursday 12 August 2004, 2100 BST and live on the Real Story website.

Nurseries Undercover
10 Aug 04  |  Real Story
Nursery failings revealed by BBC
12 Aug 04  |  Real Story


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