Focus: Who'd be a nanny?

And who'd want one? As the Beckhams found they take over your life. And it's not all Mary Poppins for the employee, either, as Katy Guest discovers
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The Independent Online

For a profession best known for spoonfuls of sugar, Friday's judgement in the High Court came as a bit of a smacked bottom. Ruling that the Beckhams' nanny, Abbie Gibson, must not reveal any more details of the couple's private life, Mr Justice Eady concluded: "Unfortunately, publication of the material has taken place on such a wide scale that it would be futile to try to prevent publication of these matters."

For a profession best known for spoonfuls of sugar, Friday's judgement in the High Court came as a bit of a smacked bottom. Ruling that the Beckhams' nanny, Abbie Gibson, must not reveal any more details of the couple's private life, Mr Justice Eady concluded: "Unfortunately, publication of the material has taken place on such a wide scale that it would be futile to try to prevent publication of these matters."

The Beckhams' QC was more blunt. "The whole purpose of this is to try to prevent the claimants' private life being aired in public in an unauthorised way by a treacherous employee," he announced, coldly. "It is uniquely hurtful and distressing to have the person who until the end of March this year was sitting around the breakfast table with them and their children discussing their daily lives repeat that information."

The nannies of the rich and famous have spent a lot of time in the Naughty Corner recently. Just before Christmas, Leoncia Casalme, the former nanny of The Spectator publisher Kimberly Quinn, showed just how much she appreciated her alleged special treatment by airing her employer's dirty linen all over the tabloids. The Home secretary, David Blunkett, had been forced to resign when it emerged that a visa application for Ms Casalme, nanny to the two-year old child he believed to be his own, had been fast-tracked. She repaid the favour by telling a newspaper: "Kimberly Quinn is the only person I have ever worked for who has made me cry. What she wants she has to get, and if she doesn't get it she starts yelling and shouting."

Since then, the nightmare nanny has been as common a topic in the tabloid press as at any middle-class dinner party. One story began: "Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of discovering that Maria, 28, was selling her body for sex in my bed." Others told tales of pilfered handbags and stolen husbands. It didn't help when figures compiled from 100 nanny agencies across the country revealed that professional child carers in London cost an average £27,000 a year - more than the starting salaries of nurses, police officers and teachers. So who on earth would have one? And, with fees of up to £3,432 per term at an agency such as Norland College, who would want to be one?

Lots of people, on both counts, says Liz White at the London agency TLC Nannies. The company has a rapid hit rate with well-qualified, highly sought after professionals, and can charge fees of £230 a day for introducing parents to a nanny and providing ongoing support. TLC was set up last year, and its founders are yet to see a Desperate Housewives-style scenario of nanny-rustling among neighbours, but it is not unheard of for employers to start a bidding war for an impressive nanny.

"What people don't realise is that many ordinary people have nannies," says Ms White. "It's not just the rich and famous." She points out that for a parent who has several children and wants them looked after together, a nanny can be cheaper than a mix of nurseries and childminding. The success of such programmes as Channel 4's Supernanny have not done any harm either. A spokeswoman says hundreds of families have since contacted the production company begging their wonder nanny, Jo Frost, to help them.

So what is a nanny? Somebody who looks after your children in your home, either as a daily visitor or a live-in, which means they get a private bedroom and food as well as wages. A childminder, on the other hand, looks after children in their own home. To look after children younger than eight, a childminder has to register with Ofsted. A nanny does not.

Louise Kirk, who looks after a little girl five days a week, is the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses' Nanny of the Year. She says it is not just employers who can end up the worse for a nannying contract. "It's one profession where you can't leave your desk at five o'clock," she says. "There is absolutely physically nothing you can do. And there are always going to be some employers who take advantage of that. They'll phone 10 minutes after they're supposed to be home and say, 'I'll be there in an hour, is that OK?' Well it's not OK, but what can you do?"

Like most nannies, Ms Kirk has heard stories of nannies farmed out as free childcare for the children of their employers' 17 best friends. But she wouldn't do any other job. "I would say it's absolutely the most rewarding job you could ever have," she says. "When I leave the little girl I look after, she thinks I must be going to the office. She has no concept that what I do with her is work. We just have fun all day."

On both sides of the battle lines, the war wounds are obvious, and much discussed. The organisation that regulates the nannying profession would be inundated with complaints and legal cases - if only it existed. But it doesn't.

This month, the Government has tried to start to control this bizarre situation by initiating the Childcare Approval Scheme. Under the scheme, families on incomes of up to £59,000 will be eligible for Working Tax Credit support for childcare in their own home. "The Government's 10-year childcare strategy is nothing short of a childcare revolution," announced the Children's Minister, Margaret Hodge. "The Childcare Approval Scheme ... will provide added surety to parents in the difficult process of selecting someone to look after their most valuable possession - their child."

But finding an official body to take responsibility for the registration of childcarers is not easy. The National Childminding Association of England and Wales refers you to the Professional Association of Nursery Nurses. There, they suggest you talk to Ofsted, which directs enquiries to the Department for Education and Skills. The DfES suggests talking to the Day Care Trust, where the acting director, Nancy Platts, is very sympathetic. "The profession wasn't registered at all until recently," she explains. "Now nannies can be registered under something called a 'light touch' scheme. The DfES booklet for parents, Nannies and Other Home-based Childcarers, says most nannies have registered childcare qualifications, but I'm not sure I agree."

She points out that if you want to claim tax credits for your nanny, he or she has to have a recognised qualification, knowledge of first aid and be subject to a background check. And she suggests you talk, of course, to the National Childminding Association of England and Wales. So we're back where we started.

Meanwhile, nightmare nanny stories are rife. There's the girl who left two sleeping children in the middle of the night without as much as a note. The one who bought her two-year-old charge a new (and inappropriate) wardrobe, out of her own money, contrary to the mother's instructions. Or the one who came back every Saturday, even after she was sacked, to read stories to the children she had fallen in love with.

"You work with someone so closely, in their own house," says Louise Kirk. "Too many people underestimate the intimacy of the relationship between the family and the nanny." But she believes there is "no excuse" for the actions of nannies like Leoncia Casalme and Abbie Gibson. "The only reason you should ever breach a confidentiality agreement is if it is in the interests of the child - if there is an issue of abuse or neglect. I think what they did is absolutely disgraceful. There is no excuse for it. Ever."

'My first was bulimic and slapped my child. The second was just hopeless'

Rebecca Woods Ballard, 36, lives in Ipswich with her three children and her partner, Hugh

My first nanny was a very, very obvious bulimic. She would disappear after a meal and come back, eyes watering, pale-faced and very vomity. It culminated in her slapping one of my children around the face. I was in another room when she actually slapped her but I heard it all happen, and then my child came in and was very distraught. There was another incident when my friend saw her in the park, and she was trying to make my one-year-old daughter walk. The friend said my daughter was crying and sobbing and told the nanny to put the child back in the pushchair. The nanny was incredibly rude, then came home and told me my friend was lying. She was leaving anyway, within a week (she was fantastic at cleaning but crap at childcare), so I didn't sack her, but I certainly didn't let her be alone with the children until she left.

The next one was a cumbersome 19-year-old. She looked like the TV portrayal of Fay Weldon's She Devil. She couldn't get anything together, she used to follow me around the house because she couldn't stand to be on her own, and I ended up having to mother her completely. She was just completely hopeless. I had to organise absolutely everything for her. I had just had an operation and made it very clear to the agency that I wasn't going to be able to do anything. But I had to drag my children and my baby out to sort out her English lessons. She shouldn't have been doing that job.

Both of these women quite clearly had serious emotional and psychological problems. The second one was so unhappy and obviously didn't want to go back home, so we eventually found her another live-in post that didn't involve childcare. She was sacked after a month.

They were both from the same agency, and it was an absolute nightmare. All it cared about was getting the au pair to you and then you were on your own. Anything else was not their problem.

I wouldn't trust my children with anybody now. I have no childcare; we use nurseries and a lot of activities. It's quite extreme, because I decided not to go back to work because of it. I definitely couldn't afford the sort of nanny who costs £20,000 a year if they live in, or £27,000 if they have to find a room. I've looked around childminders and they're no go as far as I'm concerned: at the last one I saw, there were 10 children sitting around a table with their mouths full of chocolate or dummies, watching television. I know it's not always like that but it was enough to put me off for life. You have one bad experience, and it just scares the pants off you.