Report summary: Supporting Skills for Care Workers

Part of the DfEE’s Skills Review Programme

Pre-school childcare and eldercare are characterised by relatively unqualified, almost exclusively female workforces. Jobs are low paid and low status. Caring work is traditionally seen as requiring relatively little skill. It is perceived as innate, something which comes naturally, particularly to women. However, this study illustrates that a growing breadth and depth of skills are needed in caring jobs. A situation at odds with the training, status and pay currently accorded these occupations.

A major source of employment

Around four per cent of the workforce are employed in ‘childcare and related occupations’, and two per cent as ‘care assistants and attendants’. Employment in both sectors of care has grown considerably during the early 1990s: childcare by 24 per cent and eldercare by 50 per cent.

The workforce is almost exclusively female: 98 per cent of childcarers and 92 per cent of care assistants are women. These are amongst the lowest paid occupations. Average gross weekly earnings in 1996 were £189 in childcare occupations and £182 for care assistants and attendants, compared with average earnings of £352.

Demand for care is growing and changing

There has been a major growth in demand for childcare and eldercare provision, and this growth is set to increase. A number of factors have contributed to this growth, many of which are common to both sectors. These include:

  • increasing numbers of women participating in the labour market
  • a reduction in extended families and high levels of geographical mobility among young people
  • growing numbers of lone parents and pressure on lone parents to enter employment
  • the view that participation in pre-school activity contributes to child development
  • the growing number of elderly people in the population, who also live longer than in the past and are more likely to require some sort of care.

Not only is the level of demand for care provision increasing, but a number of factors are influencing the nature of demand. In both sectors, there is debate about what constitutes good quality care.

Fundamental to good quality childcare is the provision of safe and secure care for children. However more recently debate has focused on the ability of pre-school provision to facilitate the intellectual, social, emotional, moral and aesthetic development of children. Other drivers of change in this sector include:

  • the 1998 Children Act
  • Nursery Education Vouchers and associated desirable learning outcomes
  • the Government’s consultation paper on work and family and the more recent National Childcare Strategy
  • the development of sectoral training targets, NVQs and National Training Organisations
  • the Out-of-School Childcare Initiative.

A range of themes and values are increasingly influencing the planning and delivery of care for elderly people. These can be summarised under the following headings: dignity, rights, empowerment, choice, fulfilment and privacy. Other forces for change include:

  • the National Health and Community Care Act (1990) and other changes in the social policy framework
  • more general ideas about accountability, quality and efficiency in the public sector
  • the development of occupational standards and competencies
  • recent health and safety legislation which has led to a comprehensive review of practices and procedures in many areas of delivery.

All these influences are having a major impact on the skills required by people working with pre-school children and elderly people. They have also contributed to more conscious thought being given to the skills which are needed, and a greater recognition that caring is a skilled job.

Skills for childcare

Our evidence illustrates the range of skills and knowledge people working with pre-school children need to provide good quality care. It is not simply a matter of making sure that children under their care are safe, but of having a depth of understanding about children and how they behave, learn and play.

The skills and knowledge needed include:

  • Basic skills
  • Personal skills and abilities — a wide range of personal skills and attributes are important. However, it is the ability to apply them appropriately in relation to young children and their parents which is important.
  • Providing physical care
  • A liking for working with children
  • Understanding and managing child behaviour
  • Knowledge and understanding of child development
  • Administration and observation skills
  • An understanding of equal opportunity issues
  • Managerial and business skills — these are important for those who set up their own nursery or become a childminder.

Our findings show that the role and job of a childcarer are changing. Those working with pre-school children have greater responsibilities than in the past; life in general is more complex and child safety, for example, has become a prime concern. There is more scope to use theoretical knowledge, especially in promoting child development and managing behaviour. Many of the skills required are based on an evolving body of knowledge and information. Those working with young children, as in many other occupations, need to keep their skills and knowledge up to date.

Some of the biggest changes in recent years have been as a consequence of the Children Act together with moves to increase the educational content of the pre-school curriculum. Literacy and numeracy in particular, but also other basic educational knowledge and abilities are increasingly important. Carers are also now expected to observe and record information about the children under their care.

Skills for eldercare

The following skills are important for basic care workers:

  • Personal skills and attributes — expected to be present on recruitment: for example, maturity, life experience, common sense, motivation, having a sense of humour, sensitivity, tactfulness, patience honesty, the ability to keep information confidential, and assess and react to people and situations quickly.
  • Skills which can be developed — these can be classified under four headings: personal; social; medical; and, domestic care.

Senior workers are expected to have all these personal attributes and specific skills. They must also have good oral and written communication skills, as reporting information is becoming an increasingly important part of their job. They must be good organisers, have basic administration skills, be able to co-ordinate team work, able to delegate and judge whether or not other staff have the necessary skills and knowledge to carry out certain tasks.

Skill requirements are changing rapidly in response to recent legislative and cultural developments:

  • An increasingly frail and older population requires more complex and heavier care than in the past.
  • The shift to a holistic and client focused approach means that more attention is paid to their emotional, psychological and social needs, and this requires a wider range of social, creative and interpersonal skills.
  • The need for care providers to survive in an increasingly competitive market — flatter management structures have meant basic level staff have to take on more and broader responsibilities. Some local authorities have expanded into other areas of care, including different types of provision for elderly people and meeting the needs of other groups.

Skill gaps

The main skill gaps were related to the cultural and legislative changes affecting provision, and the demand for more complex care. Some gaps were common to both caring occupations, for example, understanding and applying equal opportunities policies; literacy and numeracy.

Other gaps were related to the more specific skill and knowledge needs. For example, understanding child development and the role of play in learning; relating to parents and families; and an appreciation that skills need keeping up to date. In eldercare, specific gaps were reported in relation to: the new staff attitudes required (for example, some carers find it difficult to work with values such as treating people with dignity, empowerment and allowing privacy); a lack of understanding of some recently introduced key policies and procedures (for example, the care plan and key working); and abilities in providing basic medical care.

The study

This study is part of the Department for Education and Employment’s Skills Review Programme, exploring current and future skill requirements in major occupational groups in Britain. This study included four main components: a review of existing literature; exploratory interviews with a range of key actors in the two sectors; in-depth interviews with managers and proprietors in organisations providing care for pre-school children and elderly people; and a forum at which the research findings were discussed with participants in the study.


The report

Supporting Skills for Care Workers, Dench S, La Valle I, Evans C. Report 347, Institute for Employment Studies, 1999.

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