As I said the other day, there is a crisis of care in our country and it comes in many parts. For a start there just isn’t enough to go around; whether it’s deprived children or isolated elders, in our crowded society many people lack the human contact and support that they need to flourish. This is despite the fact – reported by the ONS today – that one in ten people provide unpaid care, that the proportion is steadily rising and most quickly among those who provide more than fifty hours a week.
Although the Coalition’s announcement of a new funding framework is welcome, regardless of who pays professional care is proving increasingly unaffordable. Virtually every local authority in England has now restricted state funded provision to those with the most severe needs, and even they get a threadbare offer.
At a time when we need to maximise productive work, the expense of child care means UK employment rates among mothers are disappointing and much lower than many other European countries. And, as recurrent scandals in hospitals and care homes – of which Mid Staffordshire is the most recent and shocking – vividly illustrate, our institutions and professionals seem capable of ignoring the most basic care needs of their patients.
Meanwhile recently another debate has reopened; what should children learn in schools? Michael Gove’s policy shift on the EBacc still leaves him out of line with a growing international consensus that schools should equip children not just with subject based knowledge but the core capabilities they will need to be successful and responsible citizens. Below the u-turn headlines last week was a surprise reprisal for citizenship education, which contrary to expectations will remain a statutory part of the curriculum, with renewed emphasis on active participation in community volunteering.
This is an opportunity. It’s time we saw learning to provide care as essential to young people’s development. We learn about the joys, trials and tribulations of providing care in practice not in theory. Teaching care should revolve around a new ‘young people’s care experience’ through which all youngsters at some point between the ages of 14 and 18 are expected to undertake a hundred hours of work experience in a care setting such as a community nursery or a residential home.
There would be many benefits. Young people would have an experience which has a good chance of being useful to them in their career and which – unlike a lot else they learn at schools – certainly of value at some point in their life. The care institutions would get a flow of prepared young people to enhance the offer they make, especially around the face to face interaction which so often seems to be missing when things go wrong at places like Mid Staffs.
Having worked in Downing Street I am painfully aware that the implementation of an idea is as important as the idea itself. The devil is in the detail. I should thank my readers for some useful comments when I floated this idea last week and an insightful sixth form group at St Xavier’s college in Clapham who gave me forthright feedback when I recently floated the concept with them.
The Government decided some time ago to scrap mandatory work experience for older secondary school pupils. This didn’t get much push back, partly because the low quality of many work placements has given the whole idea a bad name among teachers and young people. So this scheme must be linked to accredited classroom learning and to high standards of supervision and support by the care workplaces. Pupils must be prepared for the experience and if they meet the standard they must get credible accreditation to put on their CVs. And the participating organisations –which could be from the public, voluntary or private sector – should be strongly encouraged to reward young people who successfully deliver the 100 hours – some public recognition and £50 can go a long way if you’re fifteen. Perhaps as Carl Allen suggested we could make use of alternative currencies as the mode or reward.
It is also vital that the scheme is mandatory across all schools whatever their social mix. One of the problems with paid caring occupations is their low status. Feminist economists argue it is part a broader problem of downgrading what is seen as ‘women’s work’. The care experience should be seen as an opportunity and a privilege for all not a burdensome imposition. And, incidentally, this is vital for our economy. For all the talk of investment in science and high tech business, improving the quality of work in our ‘high touch’ service sector is vital to the sustainability of public services and the overall productivity of the economy.
The St Xavier’s students asked another question: Millions of young people are already care providers, looking after parents, grandparents or younger siblings. Isn’t it a bit much to ask them to add another 100 hours onto the several many spend every day looking after loved ones? It is a telling point and implementation has to leave room for schools to show common sense and compassion. But perhaps this is another upside. Far too often young carers lack the space or confidence to talk to their peer group about the challenges they face. By making care giving something we all value and all experience as part of growing up perhaps that too might change.