For too long childcare has been seen as a private concern of parents, a sideline to more important economic issues, or a ‘women’s issue’. Childcare, like education more generally, should not be pigeonholed. Giving the next generation the best possible start in life is a concern for all of society
That’s why it’s so pleasing to see both the Children’s Minister and the IPPR moving the debate on with their own reports. We will be producing our own report soon but beforehand we wanted to explore a number of issues, stemming from both of these reports.
One vital area of agreement is on the importance of high quality care. The debate about ratios and deregulation for childminders is an important one to have. When we talk about allowing childminders to look after more children, one thing that is not often discussed is whether childminders and parents want this. At any one time childminders currently have on average one less child than they are legally entitled to care for. Parents frequently cite the fact that they are different to nurseries and can provide one to one care as a reason for using them. It would be hasty to assume that all childminders want to look after more children or that all parents would be happy if this were the case – it may be so, but it would be wrong to make cost-saving assumptions based on all childminders taking on more children. What is often discussed is the relationship between ratios and qualifications. As both reports acknowledge, higher ratios in other countries are dependent on the provider being more highly trained, and the UK has a relatively low qualified workforce. Although childminders are allowed to care for fewer children, they are also not required to have a level three qualification in childcare as at least one member of staff must in a nursery, and in nursery settings a qualified teacher or Early Years Professional is again allowed to care for more children. We therefore believe that while there may be scope for relaxing ratios, it should be linked to the training of the provider; allowing more highly trained childminders or nursery workers to care for more children could be a way of incentivising the development of a more professional workforce.
The issue of deregulation more generally tends to focus on the EYFS and Ofsted inspections, and here again we can all agree that the current system seems flawed. With inspections only required once every 47 months, a rating can be very out of date and with no yearly results, as in schools, there is relatively poor accountability. It is vital that we make the system more transparent so that parents can understand the nature of the setting, and providers are encouraged to improve. The agency model is an interesting one, and certainly more frequent interaction and longer periods of observation would be helpful to accurately measure and usefully advise on quality. It is significant that the National Childminding Association wishes to retain individual inspection, and we must ensure that if there was any move towards a more localised system of inspection and support it was extremely rigorous. There is concern that some parents do not use childminders because they are sometimes viewed as lower quality so we must be very careful that a new inspection system does not reinforce this idea. More open data, tracking of children’s development and feedback from schools are all vital to make sure that childminders and nurseries are performing their duties to children well, and can serve as a benchmark of quality. Parents need the right information to make the right choices for their children. Of course all these questions of quality raise the issue of cost; if we encourage a more highly trained, high quality workforce whatever our inspection system it is difficult to see how costs will decrease.
The next area of common ground to be found is that of the funding system. This is hardly surprising, given that parents are currently entitled to a certain number of free hours a week, the childcare element of working tax credit depending upon income, and employer supported voucher schemes with amounts varying dependent on income. We also agree that a simplification of this system is required; HMRC estimate that for the childcare element there are 55,000 families who meet all the work and childcare requirements but don’t make a claim. The poorest families are the least likely to know about, and use, their free entitlement. Streamlining funding systems would be a huge benefit to parents, as the system at present means it is hard to ensure they are making the most of the benefits, entitlements or tax breaks they are entitled to. Here of course the solutions differ, and we enter the debate about whether a Dutch demand-side funding system or a Danish supply-side would work better for the UK. A supply side system can help stabilise funding, and ensure that even in poor and rural communities there will be adequate provision. Demand side funding can mean that parents have more choice about what to use, and only the settings that they deem suitable will survive.
A simple system of cash payments to parents which can only be used for childcare is difficult, because it assumes providers will rise to meet this demand, and additionally childcare costs vary hugely around the country. What may pay for ten hours in the North East may cover half that in Central London. However a supply side system can also face challenges, which have been seen in the EYSFF. Many providers complain that the system of funding for these hours does not take into account their actual costs, and doesn’t work effectively. As we all know, we cannot import a whole system however attractive it may seem, from another country. We must work within the complicated parameters of what is already in place, and acknowledge what can or can’t be changed.
The high profile nature of this debate is very promising for the future of childcare in the UK, so long as it is not allowed to slide into an ideological argument about deregulation. We must try to keep the focus on what evidence there is around the effects of regulation, and if there is not enough evidence to proceed with great caution and potentially controlled trials.