I’ve blogged about childcare previously here and here and specifically about the proposed childcare reforms here it’s something, along with most parents, that is very close to my heart so it was great to have the opportunity to meet the Minister responsible and to talk with her team about what the government sees as the problem and as the solution.
The whole package of reforms is outlined in More Great Childcare – raising quality and giving parents more choice and what struck me both in reading this document and at the meeting is that the Government wants childcare to do many things, it is both to educate and enable our children to become successful adults who contribute positively to the economy and society AND it is to liberate parents from the expense and logistical frustration that is childcare provision so that both parents can work safe in the knowledge their children are being intellectually stimulated and cared for.
These are worthy aims but hard to achieve and will need more than just good inexpensive childcare to become reality. Personally, I don’t think how we look after our children from 0-5 yrs are the determining factors in an individual’s life choices and I’m not sure it follows through that quality childcare will resolve all societal ills of the present or future, but the Government does seem to believe this so I can see why childcare seems to be a good place to start.
So what was said? Well in short, a lot so I have summarised the main points below for discussion followed by what wasn’t said as an hour to get through a discussion on childcare is never going to be enough. In case you don’t make it to the end I should say that Elizabeth Truss clearly lives and breathes her job and how to make life better for children and parents, she is herself a working parent so well knows the frustration of trying to get good childcare to continue with a job that you love…
The main points made in the discussion:
Costs to the Government and to us!
From the meeting:
Changing the status quo is never popular but it is necessary; in the UK we spend 27% of our incomes on childcare, compared to 11% in France. The Government spends £5bn on childcare, which is 40 per cent more than the OECD average. We spend less than the Nordic nations, about the same as France and more than Germany.
Whilst it’s often presented that childcare provision is more likely to fall to the mother, actually for many households there is no choice, both parents need to work to support the family.
Maternal employment is lower in the UK than in France or Germany.
The ‘free hours’ for 3 yr olds are genuinely meant to be free, but the Local Authority set the rate for the hours, which is why nurseries and pre-schools often have to find a way to ‘top up’ the amount, through lunch clubs and additional sessions charged at a higher rate.
Ratios (there is table showing the ratio change comparative to other countries on p8 of More Great Childcare – raising quality and giving parents more choice)
From the meeting:
Ratio changes if fully implemented will save parents 10% and mean that nursery workers can be paid up to £3,000 more a year.
The vision for improved childcare is to encourage better qualified teachers into the early years’ (pre-school/nursery) settings. The idea being that more qualified teachers would be able to manage more children and provide better quality care. Although the Government has given a C in GCSE maths and English as an example of better qualified nursery staff, in the meeting it was clear that actually the Government would like to see the same transformation in pre-school care that has happened to infant teaching in primary schools, where graduates are employed on good salaries.
In relation to nursery care (0-3 yrs) by relaxing the ratios the aim is to encourage flexibility within a nursery setting, so that at times of day when more help is needed staff can move more freely between rooms without being tied by ratios. I remember visiting my son’s nursery and all the children were asleep! This meant that the staff were able to move into the pre-school room and assist there for an hour every day far exceeding the regulation ratio care.
The French écoles maternelles were mentioned frequently as an example of teacher-led care. I found this news clip, which shows what happens there.
OFSTED is to be given greater powers to try to reduce the disparity of nursery care across the country.
My view: I’ve mentioned before my views on the ratio change and whilst I think the vision outlined is a good one and I appreciate change is rarely seen as positive my concerns are that changing the ratio initially won’t lead to better care for children or cost savings for parents. Attracting better qualified nursery workers will take time and money, paying the salaries for these people will cost more and as nurseries will have to spend money making these changes it is unlikely the costs to parents will go down.
I would love to be proved wrong on this though as I genuinely think the ambition to change nursery care, improve the quality of care and the salary for nursery workers is fantastic. My twin’s pre-school is mostly staffed by graduates or assistants with great interest in childcare and development and the quality has been amazing. My son’s day nursery in London was mostly staffed by very young women who didn’t have many qualifications and the staff turnover was very high and although we were lucky in that my son had the most amazing carer she has now left to become a nurse because of the low salary in childcare and lack of career prospects.
From the meeting:
In France, all children are able to stay at school until 6pm. The Government is keen for schools to adopt this model here and to offer good quality wrap-around childcare. This does not mean that they wish teachers to become surrogate parents but for the school buildings to be used to provide care facilities to pupils out of hours. The example given was The Free School Norwich, which is open 54 weeks a year.
My view: some schools, including mine, do this already and whilst the quality of the provision is good it isn’t able to accommodate everybody (we have 90 children per year) who needs the service and getting ad hoc days can be hard. I feel my school is doing a great job but it can only do so much, what is practically possible in one place isn’t necessarily so in others: teachers need classrooms for after school clubs, lesson preparation and they don’t want a free - for- all in their classrooms! They also need to protect child sensitive information. This means that you need dedicated spaces for the wrap-around care, which can be hard to find as you compete with school clubs etc. Larger schools will struggle to offer all who want it the childcare required for two parents to work full-time in non-flexible jobs.
Replacement of current employer voucher scheme with new scheme for tax-free childcare
From the meeting:
The new funding scheme will bring tax-free childcare for 2.5 million working families. The scheme will be worth up to £1,200 per child. It will be phased in from autumn 2015. There is an infographic summarising scheme here
My view: the current scheme works well if your employer has opted in! Cutting out this middle man will probably be more effective but I’ll be interested to see if and how it’s capped. I can see there will be some of the same furore as over child benefit as currently it mentions that if one member of household earns over £150k they won’t be eligible for the scheme but if two parents earn £75k they will…
What there wasn’t time to discuss…
School holidays and induction periods for reception class. This is probably more the domain of flexible working but talking to those present it’s a real issue and can the be the final straw when trying to negotiate work and children.
Nannies. Often the childcare of choice for two working parents, particularly if doing long hours. Cheaper than nurseries if you have more than two children but a huge barrier to employing them is that nannies aren’t allowed to be self-employed. This means that parents have to become employers, with all the responsibilities that come with that, and have to pay both the nannies tax and an employer’s contribution. If nannies could be self-employed it would make a huge difference to parents.
Childminders. The ratio changes are due to give more flexibility to child minders but could inadvertently end up meaning more work and less pay. The introduction of child minding agencies is meant to redress the regulatory burden but I am not sure how it will work in practice and time had run out to discuss!
The End… And a radical solution
It was great to have an hour of the Minister’s time and to meet other parent bloggers with the same childcare concerns and issues as me. Afterwards I asked a friend what she would do to change childcare costs she said she’d means test the free hours meaning that not everyone will get them but those that really need them would and could have more hours than given currently so it makes a real difference. Sounds like a good plan to me.
What would I change? I would allow childcare to be paid totally out of pre-tax earnings. This would make a huge difference but sadly I can’t see it ever happening.
As always your views are welcomed!
Disclaimer: I have tried to accurately reflect what happened in the meeting but if you were there and interpreted it differently, let me know!