After two years of redundancies and frozen pay, nannies are enjoying a job boom. Ministers finding it difficult to convince voters that the recession is over should concentrate on an alternative economic indicator - London nannies' salaries.
Demand for these qualified professionals is far outstripping supply. Wages commanded by nannies have risen by an average of 8 per cent, more than three times the rate of inflation (2.3 per cent).
But two years ago they faced the unthinkable: as their employers fell victim to the slump an increasing number of nannies queued with three million others for the dole.
'The past two years has been a nightmare time for nannies,' says Grainne Lampshire, owner of the Oxford-based Rockinghorse Agency, which supplies nannies to families in London.
'Qualified, trained nannies were constantly being made redundant. Now I have more requests than nannies. The waiting lists are growing. During the worst of the recession our clients were feeling the pinch, some lost their jobs, there was no way they could still afford the nanny. Sometimes it came down to keeping the nanny or paying the mortgage.
'One nanny was made redundant by her family, but stayed on as their lodger. She stopped working for them, paid them board and got a day job.
The upturn, according to agencies, started in January.
Meryl Lloyd, proprietor of Fulham-based Scallywags agency, said: 'We hope we are heading back to the big boom of five or six years ago. But the girls are nervous. Those that have secure jobs do not want to risk going to a new employer in case it goes wrong.'
The best paid British nannies have usually had formal training, such as the NNEB, a vocational course which places emphasis on the practical aspects of childcare, or the BTEC, a professional qualification for which students require a minimum of four GCSEs. Both are taught at more than 200 further education colleges. There are also prestigious private colleges such as Norlands and Princess Christian, where nannies train in uniform.
It is this training and experience which separates them from au-pairs.
Some nannies without formal qualifications can still command larger salaries if they have the relevant experience.
One of the highest earners on Rockinghorse's books is a nanny with 25 years experience who specialises in maternity care. Her fee is pounds 350 a week, net, to live in.
Nannies living in central London earn substantially more than their counterparts elsewhere in the country.
According to a recent survey by the magazine, Nursery World, the average salary for an experienced nanny in Central London is pounds 142 net to live in, pounds 184 live out.
A newly qualified first-timer can expect pounds 110 to live in, pounds 150 net live out, although researchers have found thatthese rates can vary individually from pounds 80 to pounds 180.
There is always room, however, for undercutting.
Families who cannot afford or do not want to pay for a UK-trained nanny can hire live-in Australians or New Zealanders for as little as pounds 50 a week.
'You get a lot of Antipodeans. Because they are more transient, they are willing to put up with a lot more than the British girls,' Ms Lloyd said.
'They are often qualified too, sometimes they are nurses or even midwives, but they have taken time out to travel. So they are not thinking of nannying as a career. If they come through us we will place them for around pounds 100 a week. They can be very good.
'We get people saying 'why pay for an English nanny when I can get an Australian?'.'
The cost of using an agency, however can be expensive: fees range from a pounds 150 introduction fee up to pounds 2,000.
Employers who refuse to pay their help's national insurance are the biggest headache for the agencies.
Most recruitment companies are anxious to emphasise that the horror stories of nannying, while widely reported when they happen, occur only rarely. But there is a black list of employers and nannies circulated between agencies.
'There are nannies who have done horrible things, such as beat the children.
'There are also employers who have locked their nannies in all the time to stop them ever leaving the house.
'But it is extremely rare,' she added.
IN A POSITION OF POWER, WITH ALL THE PERKS
With one of the plum jobs in nannying, Audra Hall cannot help being smug. She has all the trappings of wealth, a luxury flat, a smart car, and plenty of cash. 'Frankly, I've got it made.'
Audra, 24, earns pounds 140 a week after tax. Her employers, Jane and Ralph Cantellow, also pay all her bills. Jane works for Saatchi, and Ralph for accountants KPMG.
When they hired her two years ago they bought her a two-bedroom flat just around the corner from their own in Shepherd's Bush, gave her a credit card and a Golf GTi, changed recently for a new Toyota Corolla. But she works hard for her money. Her day, caring for two boys, Pym, two, and Max, one, begins at 7.45am and rarely ends before 7.30pm.
'I was the family's first nanny, which meant I could lay down rules for the whole family. The children go to bed at a set time, they nap in the afternoon. They have a routine, we go for walks and read together. They are my little angels. When they are quiet and playing I take time for myself, to have a coffee or to read a book.'
Her ground rules include smacking. 'I smack on the hand as the very last resort, I told my employers that at the interview. I would not have taken the job if they had objected.'
Audra's career development has been rapid. Her post with the Cantellows is her third nannying job. Her first, four years ago, involved caring for a six-week-old baby in Fulham for pounds 50 a week. 'I had no experience and no qualifications, but I learned fast.' Her current lifestyle is a far cry from her old in Liverpool as a clerk: 'I was always staring out of the window wishing I had an interesting job and could get outside. Now the children and I go for walks when we want and it's lovely. My employers are wonderful.'
There are drawbacks: 'All your friends seem to be other nannies. When we go for a drink we say OK first 20 minutes talk shop, then we ban the baby chat. It's a relief to talk about some other subject - even it's just John Major.'
NET PAY OF LONDON NANNIES AND AGENCY PLACEMENT FEES
All fees are charges to the employer. Figures given are nanny's weekly wage after tax and national insurance are deducted, so the net cost to the employeer is even higher
27 Cranbourne Road, London N10:
Live-in: pounds 100-120 / Live-out:pounds 180-200
Fee: pounds 400
18b Princes Place, London W11
Live-in: pounds 150-250 / Live-out: pounds 180-220
Fee: Equivalent to 5 weeks salary
62 St. John Street, Oxford:
Live-in: pounds 150-180 / Live-out: pounds 230
Fee: pounds 275
Sheila Davis Agency
23 Northgate, Prince Albert Road,
St. John's Wood, London NW8:
Live-in: pounds 130-150 / Live-out pounds 180-220
Fee: Equivalent to 6 weeks salary
The Nanny Agency
20 Cranbourne Road, London N10:
Live-in: pounds 110-150 / Live-out: pounds 200
Fee: Equivalent to 2 weeks salary (plus pounds 100 for live-in placement)
323 Kirkdale, Sydenham, London, SE26:
Live-in: pounds 110-140 / Live-out: pounds 160 upwards
Fee:Equivalent to 3 weeks salary
Room 1, EBC House, Kew Road, Richmond
Live-in: pounds 100-130 / Live-out: pounds 170 upwards
Fee: pounds 450
6 Kingsley Close, London, N2:
Live-in: pounds 120 upwards / Live-out: pounds 150 upwards
Fee: pounds 375
49/53 Kensington High Street, London W8:
Live-in: pounds 160-200 / Live-out: pounds 200-250
Fee: pounds 600
289-293 Ballards Lane, Finchley, N12:
Live-in: pounds 130-200 / Live-out: pounds 200-230
Fee: Equivalent to 3 weeks salary
34 Brook Street, Mayfair, London W1:
Live-in: pounds 150-300 / Live-out: pounds 200-350
Fee: Equivalent to 6 weeks salary
Mothers help pounds 80 net live in
live in top rate for qualified nannie. pounds 180
Daily average pounds 180 -pounds 200.
Fee: pounds 400 plus VAT.