Childcare: No parent is asking for less attention, however good at fractions.
***Update*** In the months since writing this post, following the announcement of the reforms to childcare ratios, there has been almost universal opposition to the proposals. It has even caused the online parenting sworn enemies Mumsnet and Netmums to join forces. Mumsnet invited Childcare Minister Liz Truss to take part in a webchat. Due to massive opposition across the Mumsnet boards – in multiple threads as well as on the webchat – they are now backing the “Rewind on Ratios” campaign led by the Pre-school Learning Alliance. If you’re against the changes, sign the petition and share the link. ***here endeth the update***
This was originally posted on January 29th 2013.
Shouting at the radio is part of my normal morning routine. It waxes and wanes through outrage and indignation into resignation and despair.
The present Government provides ample ammunition. Sometimes, I think they are doing it on purpose. Whether they’re dismantling the NHS or trying to build a train line through my favourite pub garden. This morning’s announcement on childcare reform was enough to snap me, whiplash like, from despair straight back to incredulity.
Apparently this Government understands the problems childcare can bring. Apparently it understands the needs of modern families. However, I strongly suspect that their experience of childcare headaches involves trying to find a nanny who’ll fly economy with the kids. I am willing to put good money that none of them have ever attempted to take care of 6 two year olds.
It is a policy born out of think tanks and workshops. You can picture the away day with them all wearing their party hats and coming up with the next radical solution. Except that they forget that these are numbers, or budgets, or P&L lines, these are children whose parents, on the whole, actually quite like them and want the best for them. It is the same process which revolutionised school dinners, making them suddenly cheaper and more efficient on paper, without anyone giving a thought to what was actually in them.
I have used a variety of childcare over the years. When I first returned to work, still living in London, my eldest son went to a fairly low cost (i.e. only slightly crippling), friendly kind of nursery in an old church hall with ridiculously cheap rent and kind, warmhearted staff. Sadly, after a while the church decided that the rent was indeed ridiculously cheap, changed its mind and the nursery closed. He then went to a far bigger and more expensive ‘chain’ nursery that cost more than half my salary, look very professional but had massively high staff turnover and an incompetent manager. That was the only choice I had if I wanted to work.
When son number 2 came along, now out of London, we decided that he was a little more sensitive than his older brother and a nursery didn’t seem right for him. We found a wonderful childminder nearby who he has now been with for over 3 years.
I had all of the angst, guilt and hand wringing about each and every choice. Although cost was a consideration, it was never just a numbers game. Never, at any point, when collecting the children or paying the bills did I think ‘if only there were more children here’.
However it would appear that this is the answer to the nation’s childcare woes. Not cheaper rents, not Government subsidy, not investment in training, not more tax relief. No, let’s give childcare workers more children to look after. It’ll be fine though, because they’ll have been on a course and have a maths GCSE.
My childminder is amazing in her ability to calm toddlers and get them all to move in the same direction (a skill that eludes me) but even she would struggle to ever leave the house with 6 of them. I don’t actually think the Government understand childminding at all – why parents choose them or how they work. I genuinely think they are confused as to why people don’t just get a nanny.
So really, the new rules are only practical when applied to nurseries – but even then they make no sense. The reforms aim to reduce costs and raise the quality and pay of staff. It can’t easily do both.
I find it very difficult to believe that nursery fees will go down significantly. Staff will command more pay for having more qualifications to look after more children but the costs will stay the same. And even then, all the GCSE’s in the world are still going to leave you with one pair of eyes, arms and one lap to sit on. Parents want to know that their child will be loved, and cared for, and attended to. I can think of no parent who would believe this represented better care for their toddler.
What I suspect it will do is raise the profits of private nurseries, with little being passed on to parents. I fully expect to see a rise in ‘gold star’ nurseries which proudly display their child ratios in their glossy prospectus, and have the fees to match. Like the private school system which shout their small class sizes from the rooftops, the gap between what people can afford will grow ever wider.
For the rest, they will have the existing safeguards removed and be forced to choose the only childcare they can afford, which is now worse than it once was. It is a difficult decision at the best of times to decide to leave your children with someone else. For many, with crippling house prices and rising bills, they don’t even have a choice.
There are countless other ways to reduce the cost of childcare without compromising safety or quality. It doesn’t feel like these have ever really been on the agenda.
For a government that claims to know the dilemmas that families face, it is seems an odd move.
I’ll admit, it’s not their oddest, but that’s no excuse.