Let's have a nanny state

So you need help choosing your childcare. But is this the way? By Kate Watson-Smyth
Click to follow
IT USED to be terribly easy to get hold of a nanny. One simply picked up the telephone and rang Norland. They would send round a super girl in a frightfully smart uniform leaving one free to get back to the seating plan for dinner.

Nowadays, parents have grown wary about who they invite into their homes. A spotlight has been shone on to the nannying profession by the recent trials of Louise Woodward and Louise Sullivan. And the profession has been found wanting.

Everyone has at least one horror story to tell of the monster they invited into their home. And now the Government has finally responded by issuing a set of guidelines aimed at helping parents to choose a nanny or carer. The advice booklet, Need a Nanny, seems at first sight to consist of simple common sense, but many mothers welcome it.

Jane Osborn, who spent three months searching for a nanny for her daughter, Elizabeth, says any help at all is valuable, however basic. "I had no idea how to interview and I was gobsmacked when one nanny turned me down. I thought I was offering her a lovely job looking after my lovely baby... I realised then that I had to do a much better job of selling myself and the family, which came as a great surprise to me."

The booklet contains information on interview techniques, what to look for in a potential employee and the importance of listening to your child's reaction to the stranger. It also emphasises the cardinal rule: check every reference.

Clare Jackson spent nine months looking for a nanny: "My friends recommended various agencies, but I didn't think any of them were good enough. They didn't seem to put in very good checks on the girls which I found very worrying.

"The prospective nannies would turn up sloppily dressed and with no interest in what the children liked to eat or what activities they could do with them which might be educational. It had me in tears and I began to think I'd have to give up work."

In the end, Miss Jackson found a nanny through a London-based agency called Nannies and Home Services Ltd, which provides nannies to the police federation and refuses to take on any girl who has not had a police check.

David McGhie, a director of the firm, is keen to be reassuring. "We are a limited company so anyone can check us out," he says. "We do extensive interviews with the parents and the nannies and ask them to go to the local police station to be screened. That gives them a letter saying they have been checked. Anyone who refuses to do that is automatically refused a position with us."

Clare Jackson is cautiously welcoming to the guidelines but worries that they would simply help nannies to prepare the questions.

"If they can read about how they are likely to be interviewed and what the parents will be looking for, then they can be prepared and know what to say just so they get the job," she says.

Ms Osborn, who now runs Elizabeth Henry, a nanny agency near Sevenoaks in Kent, said she would have been glad of the guidelines when she was hunting for a nanny but suggested that there should be a mechanism for nannies to check out future employers as well.

"I sometimes send 18-year-old girls to families for live-in jobs and I have no idea what the families are really like. I could be sending them off to a position where they are abused and mistreated. The fact is that there need to be clear guidelines for both sides."

Clare Russell spent nine months with a string of "appalling" nannies.

"But the one crucial thing I have learnt from all this is that you cannot tell anything from an interview and you must always check all the references. Never, ever allow yourself to be fobbed off, just keep badgering until you get the information you need."