Yesterday, a delegation of ten Tots100 bloggers travelled to London to meet with education minister Elizabeth Truss.
As you’re probably aware, the government recently published a document called More Great Childcare, which sets out some of the government’s proposals to improve families’ access to quality, affordable childcare.
The key proposals in the document (you can find the full version here) include:
- Reducing the number of qualifications available to childcare professionals from more than 400 today to just two qualifications for early years professionals
- Increasing the number of children nurseries and childminders can care for, in certain circumstances
- Recruiting new inspectors and improving the quality of inspections of early years care providers, to focus on quality of care rather than process
Whether you think the proposals are a step in the right direction or a clear step backwards will depend on your personal politics and circumstances, but what I think all parents can agree on is that there are huge issues for families in the UK today trying to access high quality childcare that is reliable, flexible and affordable.
So it was fantastic to bring together a group of parents who shared their concerns, experiences and wishes with the minister.
Here’s what we talked about:
Neil, a former childminder, expressed concern that increasing childcare ratios could lead to problems unless inspections were also increased, because the temptation would be for poorly-paid providers to increase the number of children they care for, without having the necessary support or care in place. Neil also felt that there needed to be more action to support men working in childcare, as childminders and in other settings.
Claire talked about how hard it is for her family to afford childcare, and the cost of providing childcare for three young children means she is effectively unable to return to her job as a museum curator because that role does not pay enough to cover childcare costs for her family. You can read more about Claire’s thoughts on this issue over on her blog, Being a Mummy. Claire was concerned that, as a childminder herself, it was simply impossible for her to safely look after more children, and she was concerned about the appropriateness of the proposed new agencies, which she felt might put pressure on childminders to take on children into their homes that they were not familiar with, in emergencies.
Marsili was concerned at the differences in quality between childcare providers in wealthy versus deprived areas, and was concerned that the proposed changes would lead to a two-tier system, with less well-off families left with inadequate care, or care of a lesser standard than parents in more affluent areas. She was concerned about the increase in ratios, and wondered if the high-performing nurseries able to increase ratios would also increase prices, meaning more families would be forced out of work to stay home, simply because childcare was unaffordable.
Sian argued that while simplification of qualifications is a good thing, qualifications are not the be all and end all when caring for babies. In Sian’s case, she has a wonderful, caring childminder who may not have qualifications but is affordable and provides excellent care – would that kind of provider lose out under the new system? Sian found she was unable to return to work after having children, because childcare was too expensive, and she now balances caring for her children with studying for a degree – but childcare is a huge expense, along with travel.
Victoria pointed out that, for many parents, extended childcare and wrap-around care is very expensive, and inflexible – and for her, working freelance from home is realistically the best option.
Hannah argued that childcare needs to be tax-deductible for working parents, and asked why it is so difficult to find flexible care. In Hannah’s case, the local nursery imposes a penalty for parents who are late to collect children, and three-time offenders can find themselves without a place. This means Hannah, who works long hours, has had to hire a nanny since she is unable to access any other form of childcare. Hannah also pointed out that in her region, the 15-hours of free childcare was limited to parents who placed children in nursery for five days a week – meaning it was not possible to place a child in nursery for just one or two days, for example. The cost of childcare means Hannah takes home only a tiny proportion of her salary each month.
Sarah told the minister that she feels working parents are often overlooked, with resources going to parents on benefits – she was particularly concerned about the recent announcement of providing free nursery places to 2-year-olds using funding from Sure Start. She was also concerned about inspections, feeling that they are often a box-ticking exercise and don’t capture the information parents really want to know about. Why aren’t inspections unannounced as they would be in the NHS, she asked?
Lastly, I told the minister that as a single, self-employed working parent, a nanny was the only option that provided enough flexibility in the early years, and for several years, work simply fitted around caring for my child at home.
And here’s what the Minister said:
The government is working in new proposals that will make childcare more affordable for more parents but the intention of this document is to look at raising quality, Mrs Truss said.
The government believes that increasing the number of qualified staff in early years settings does increase outcomes for children and is considered a bigger influence than the ratio of adults to children.
Mrs Truss pointed to other European countries and pointed out we have one of the most expensive childcare markets in Europe (as a percentage of earnings) but some of the lowest-paid providers. She said the government is committed to raising the status of childcare professionals.
For this reason, the government wants to give providers the flexibility to choose to increase ratios, but this will only be an option in settings where there are high-quality staff and good inspection reports.
Mrs Truss recognises that Ofsted reports are not working perfectly, and that there is often duplication between agencies, and too much disparity between reports. The government is committed to recruiting and training inspectors to allow for more inspections, and for inspections that focus on the quality of care and softer skills alongside questions of qualification, policy and process.
On the issue of Childminder Agencies, Ms Truss said she hoped these agencies would be valuable and provide parents with reassurance that childcare was reliable and high-quality. However, she said the specifics of how the agencies would work were still being worked out, and the government welcomes input on what childminders would like to see.
A quick thanks
Elizabeth Truss listened to our bloggers’ concerns and answered our questions – including some pretty tough ones! It’s fantastic to have the opportunity to present our concerns in this kind of forum, so thanks to the minister for taking the time to chat with us yesterday.
Thanks too, to all our bloggers for taking the time to come and discuss these important issues, and we look forward to hearing what you thought of the things you heard!