Today has seen two important announcements on childcare and early years learning: the final report of the Nutbrown Review of early learning and childcare qualifications and the establishment by Number 10 of an Affordable Childcare Commission. These are both welcome developments. They point to the increased salience of childcare as a political issue and to the strategic importance of early learning and affordable childcare to the future of Britain’s public services.
The spin on the Affordable Childcare Commission is that it will look at measures to deregulate childcare provision and expand childminding, in line with the arguments recently made by Liz Truss, a Conservative MP. Ministers have also said that they want to expand more wrap-around care for schoolchildren.
Unfortunately, these goals can point in different directions. Liz Truss – who has done a huge amount to raise the issue of childcare costs in political debate – blames the Labour government’s expansion of nursery places and early years regulatory standards for a decline in childminding places and an increase in childcare fees. But if you look at the statistics, in the period 2005–2010, when nursery and day care places underwent their most significant expansion, childminder numbers dropped much more sharply for over-5s than for 0–3s. This is largely because the Labour government expanded before and after-school clubs in this period as well, as part of its Extended Schools strategy. The key facts are that between 2005 and 2010:
- full day care places for 0–3s rose by 229,000
- childminder places for 0–3s dropped 8,500
- childminder places for 5+ dropped by 24,000
- afterschool places for 5+ rose by 86,500
This is not surprising. Although parents who use childminders greatly value their services, and trust them to provide safe, loving care for their children, they tend to want educationally and socially developmental activities for their children after school. The Department for Education’s survey evidence shows that demand for after-school clubs is strongly motivated by the child’s benefit: 59 per cent of parents who said they would be likely to use after-school provision if available said it would be for their child’s enjoyment, 55 per cent for educational development and 50 per cent for social development. A further 26 per cent of parents said they would use after-school clubs so they or their partner could work or work longer hours (with a further 3 per cent mentioning study/ training). This indicates that further expansion of after-school provision may be more helpful for parents wanting to work or work longer hours. But it also helps to show why Labour’s expansion of after school clubs – which the government now proposes to revisit – was associated with a larger proportionate fall in childminder numbers than pre-school places.
It is also hard to square the long-term decline in the number of childminders with new early years curriculum requirements introduced in the later years of the Labour government, since the most substantial part of the drop took place between 1996 and 2005, predating the introduction of the new curriculum. Nor is it the case that nurseries have been given preferential treatment, contrary to parental wishes. Parents value pre-school nursery education. As the table below shows, they choose pre-school nursery and reception classes for reputational, educational and social reasons:
Reasons for choosing main formal provider for pre-school children, by provider type
It is most likely that lots of childminders left the profession in the late 1990s and early 2000s for the simple reason that better paid work was available elsewhere. This was a period of healthy growth in the labour market and wider availability of setting-based childcare work, where child-minders could socialise with other people and earn more. This is indeed what a survey of former childminders found in 2001.
The government’s Affordable Childcare Commission will undoubtedly find scope for relaxing bits of unnecessary red tape in the early years sector. But marginal changes to staff-to-child ratios for childminders are not likely to make a huge difference. It is worth remembering that the rules on adult-to-child ratios are already more flexible than might appear to be the case. As the National Childminding Association points out, each childminder may care for:
- a maximum of six children under the age of eight
- of these six children, a maximum of three may be young children, however where four- and five-year-old children only attend the childminding setting before and/or after a normal school day, they may be classed as children over the age of five for the purposes of the adult-to-child ratio
- normally, no more than one child may be under the age of one, however a childminder may be registered to care for two children under the age of one where they are able to demonstrate that they can meet and reconcile the individual needs of all the children being cared for.
The biggest change on the horizon for childminders may indeed be to increase regulation, not diminish it, since a key conclusion from the Nutbrown Review is that early learning staff should all be qualified to level 3 (A-level equivalent) or above. As Nutbrown states:
‘Currently childminders are not required to have any qualification (though many do). Introducing a requirement for all childminders to hold a level 3 qualification would have a disproportionate impact on this part of the sector. By including childminders in the requirements placed on group settings there is a risk, some argue, that we exclude the flexible childminder from the system – those who would find it difficult having to study for a qualification, with the time and money that would involve.
‘However, in my view, all children learning within the EYFS [early years foundations stage] must receive an equal standard of care and education, and their families should expect this from any setting providing the EYFS. It is therefore my judgment that any childminder providing the EYFS must meet the same qualifications requirements that we expect of practitioners in group settings. Childminders are part of the picture of early years provision, therefore I can find no justification for exempting those who work with children alone in their homes from the need to hold qualifications.’
Nutbrown’s review places the quality of early years learning and childcare at the heart of the agenda, and rightly so. As this blog has argued on many occasions, the countries that most successfully combine social mobility and high female employment rates are those with high-quality universal childcare systems. If the Affordable Childcare Commission wants to secure affordability with high quality, it should take the Nordic path, not the free market one.