I agree with Nick Clegg – on childcare ratios at least
Nick Clegg has joined a chorus of concerned childminders, nursery providers and parents unconvinced by Liz Truss’ proposals that relaxing child ratios will improve quality or drive down costs.
These concerns have been voiced since Liz Truss first suggested them. A survey by the National Children’s Bureau revealed that 95% of respondents were concerned about increasing ratios. Professor Cathy Nutbrown who advised the Government on childcare has commented the ratio plans ‘make no sense at all’. And online petitions have gathered significant resistance to reform; the Childminding Forum has amassed almost 34000 signatures with concerns that relaxing ratios will threaten health, safety and well-being of children; and the Pre-school Learning Alliance’s Rewind on Ratios campaign is petitioning the Government to ‘scrap its plans on childcare ratio changes’ collecting over 11,500 signatures to date. A day of action has even been called for June 1 for the childcare sector to unite to challenge the Government’s proposals.
In new research (shortly to be published by IPPR) with childminders this message is reiterated. This survey asks childminders their views as many are considering how to adapt to the potential changes in September. It gives us the most up-to-date picture about how this sector might respond. 74% of childminders say that they won’t increase the number of children they care for, 79% of those won’t because they think the quality of care will suffer, with 68% saying it would also pose a safety risk to children. When asked to consider the impact of increasing the number of children they cared for at any one time, 93% thought it would have no effect on cost to parents with less than 2% thinking that they will decrease the amount they charge parents per child. 5% thinking they might increase parental fees.
The Government’s response to all this evidence has typically been that ratios are looser in other European countries, especially France. But this is because the qualifications attained by the early years workforce in France are generally higher. So using ratios as an indicator for costs is limited given the different levels and status of qualifications. It is a real stretch to suggest that slightly looser ratios will lead to lower prices and higher salaries.
Clegg’s reservations on ratios are welcome and suggest that there is genuine concern on how to best improve child outcomes. But there are other parts of the Government’s childcare package where he would be well placed to also be sceptical, namely proposals on tax relief.
Working parents will be eligible to claim up to £1200 tax-free for childcare costs. But tax relief tends to be regressive, skewed towards higher income families. Analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows that only 160,000 families in the bottom 40 per cent of the income distribution will qualify for new help compared to 1.7 million families in the top 40% by income. At a cost of about £1 billion pounds this proposal is not likely to deliver for the hardworking families struggling with the high-costs of childcare. IPPR has long argued that this money would be better spent investing in early years services, widening access and increasing affordability. If Clegg approaches tax relief with the same reservations as flexing ratios, ‘I agree with Nick’ may yet be sung again.