At our local nursery, rivers of grown-up tears have been shed, a teacher with two decades of experience has given up to go and work in a supermarket and trustees have been crushed by a year of dealing with Ofsted.
No, Ofsted won't return calls, speak to anyone aside the "registered person" (who in addition to sitting in call queues has a nursery to run), confirm precise rules on ratios, deal with anything which is waiting in "their virtual queue" or take into account the circumstances of the nursery. You must fill in the endless barrage of forms, records and bureaucracy. The computer says... wait. Someone suggested they hire an "Ofsted consultant" to help manage the process. What madness is this?
While Ofsted hides, the funding for the nursery depends on the local authority. The ever more complex quotas and allocations based on age, parental income and special educational needs make the financial planning as messy as toddler art. Even if a trustee, who is not paid for their time but spends a day a week on this planning, has an accountant husband to help.
Friends who are nursery teachers tell part-hilarious and part-terrifying tales of the nature of their job. "Magic" gloves to redirect the stream of three-year-old boys' wee so they don't get showered in it. Changing the nappies of kids who should have been toilet trained a year or so earlier and getting shouted at by parents if these large nappies are not immaculately clean at pick-up time. Constant wariness for anything that might generate a complaint about "inappropriate behaviour".
Each teacher is expected to assess all the children in their care each day. But also to answer, for any of their 20 or 25 children, the regular questions parents have: what they ate (how many spoonfuls, how do you define a portion, can we see your ladle), what they drank, when they went to the toilet, who they played with and account for the detailed minutiae of toddler conflict.
These questions are usually friendly, if intense. But not all. The risk of parent complaint is high, concentration is required, escalation to the head teacher frequent. Their energy is drained. Their attention is drawn away from managing the kids in their care to focus on the highly particular needs of individual parents. Increasing the risk of an end-of-day altercation that will draw further fire. And, yes, since you're wondering, the middle-class parents of only children are the most demanding.
We've created a system built on stress, fear and bureaucracy. That creates sleepless nights of worry over all the wrong things. That pushes the people who have the amazing skills to relate to small children to go and work somewhere – anywhere – less stressful and better paid.
Let's just step back and be clear about what we want from these people: someone we trust, someone to use their own good judgment to ensure our kids are well-socialised, happy and ready to start school. Someone to wipe away tears when Ella says she is not your best friend and Freddie says he doesn't want to marry you today, and someone to celebrate the triumphs of every day.
Nursery and play workers are among the 10 worst paid jobs in the UK (according to ONS data). All of us – parents, Ofsted, local authorities – need to back off and let them do their jobs. And thank them for putting up with us.
Christine Armstrong is a contributing editor of Management Today, author of Power Mums (interviews with high-profile mothers) and founder of www.villas4kids.com. She can be found on Twitter at @hannisarmstrong.