Childcare reform could raise costs further after Clegg’s attack on ratios

Len Shackleton
IT IS depressing to see education minister Liz Truss’s proposals to relax childcare ratios – which would have allowed nursery staff look after more children – vetoed by Nick Clegg. He has caved in to an alliance of nursery workers and the ferocious army of Mumsnetters.

It’s not yet clear how Truss will react. But remember that the ratio proposals were just one part of a policy package that included upgrading the qualifications required to work in childcare. If she persists with this plan, to which Clegg presumably doesn’t object, the coalition will increase costs further (some middle-income working parents already spend a third or more of after-tax earnings on childcare). Thus the final element of the package, the £1,200 a year in tax breaks for parents, will become less adequate, and will lead to pressure for more subsidy.

We need to step back and think what childcare is for. With very young children, and those who are looked after on a part-time basis, we surely do not need the formal structure of pre-school education embodied in the Early Years Foundation Stage. Nor should we have detailed requirements about meal provision and equipment. If some parents want mini-schools of the kind Truss seems to favour, following her recent day trip to France, fine: but they need to pay more for this.

Many parents simply want their small children looked after by competent, caring individuals, whether childminders in their own homes or small crèche-style nurseries. In a large number of cases, this will only be for two or three mornings a week, while mum and dad juggle their work and other commitments. This is not yet Big School, nor do parents want it to be.

Yet all “childcare providers” currently have to jump through the same regulatory hoops, produce the same paperwork and undergo the same Ofsted monitoring. This is daft: it has halved the number of registered childminders, driven out perfectly capable and loving carers with limited educational backgrounds or English language skills, and raised costs. To the extent that it has increased unregistered childminding in deprived areas, it may have increased risks to children.

Interestingly, the law trusts well-off types like Clegg – who employ nannies or au pairs – to make their own judgments about who is fit to look after their children. There is no compulsory register or qualification requirements, let alone an early years curriculum to adhere too. And no Ofsted inspector turns up to see if the children are eating up their greens. When you can afford a nanny, who needs the state?

But if we want to bring down the cost of childcare, we must make it much easier for individuals and businesses to enter the field – not more difficult as Truss now seems to want.

Subject to basic criminal records bureau (CRB) and safety checks, we should let childcare providers compete to produce alternative types of care, with or without a curriculum, with different hours, different types of staff, in different types of premises. And we should give back to parents the responsibility for seeing that the option they choose is appropriate for their and their children’s needs. Can Mumsnet really object to this?

Len Shackleton is professor of economics at the University of Buckingham.