Childcare sector awaits reform plans as nurseries struggle to make ends meet

Government announcements expected next week could revolutionise childcare – and, says the Guardian, all agree it is not before time…

Next week the government is expected to make announcements that could revolutionise childcare. Everyone agrees it is not before time. Childcare in the UK is among the most expensive in the world, costing an average of 27% of parental income, compared with 13% in Europe and 5% in Sweden.

Despite the expense, British childcare fails where it is most needed. Three-quarters of providers are rated by Ofsted as good or outstanding, but it is children in the poorest areas of the country who receive the worst care.

According to the Sutton Trust, an educational charity, the UK has one of the biggest gaps in “school readiness” between the richest and poorest four- and five-year-olds, based on the top and bottom 10%. Children from the poorest homes are, on average, nearly 19 months behind children from the richest homes in vocabulary tests. (That compares with 14.5 months in Australia and 10.6 months in Canada, countries that have similar levels of inequality to the UK but greater social mobility.)

Early years providers and experts are waiting on tenterhooks for the announcements. There are two pending: the government response to Professor Cathy Nutbrown’s official review of early education and childcare qualifications in England; and the deliberations of David Cameron’s commission on childcare, tasked with devising a way to reduce the cost.

Nutbrown’s report, Foundations for Quality, called for all nursery staff to have A-level-standard professional qualifications and better maths and literacy skills. It was widely welcomed by an industry in which 14% of the workforce is educated to graduate level, and which struggles to attract and retain high-quality workers.

Nutbrown was not asked to price her 19 recommendations and, according to figures obtained this week by Labour through freedom of information requests, finances are moving in the other direction. There have been substantial cuts, Labour discovered, to the funding available to train childcare staff.

Figures for 136 local authorities show that money available was slashed by 40% in a year, from £93m in 2010/11 to £56m in 2011/12. In four areas – Redcar and Cleveland, Enfield, Solihull and Lewisham – there is no money for councils to provide nursery staff training.

Causing more angst are hints dropped this week by the Conservative MP Elizabeth Truss about the conclusions of the childcare commission she has led with Steve Webb, the Lib Dem pensions minister, including possibly changing staff-to-children ratios in childcare settings, cutting red tape and creating wrap-around care from 6am to 6pm, as happens in Germany.

Talk of changing ratios is controversial. Under current legislation there is one carer to every three children up to two, 1:4 for toddlers aged two to three, and 1:6 for three- to four-year-olds.

In a piece for the ConservativeHome website, Truss wrote: “We need to think about the balance between the number and quality of staff in our system. It is no coincidence that we have the most restrictive adult-child ratios for young children of comparable European countries as well as the lowest staff salaries.”

Truss has praised the French écoles maternelles system that offers traditional nursery-style teaching in large groups of three- and four-year-olds, with each staff member responsible for up to eight toddlers.

For struggling nurseries, being able to reduce staff numbers should be welcome. Staff salaries account for around 70% of nurseries’ costs. But the reaction from providers has been anything but positive. In a survey by the Pre-school Learning Alliance, 94% of respondents said they did not believe they would be able to maintain their current quality of service if staffing levels were reduced.

Respondents also said having fewer staff would not necessarily reduce the financial burden on parents. “Very few respondents indicated that they would adjust their charges accordingly, arguing that the additional revenue would go part‑way to addressing the historic inadequacy of funding,” said Neil Leitch, chief executive of the alliance.

A yet-to-be-published report by the National Childminding Association, seen by the Guardian, says almost two-thirds of childminders agree that looser ratios would compromise the safety of children in their care.

A closer look at the foreign systems that Truss lauds is revealing. According to an independent report from the Economist Intelligence Unit last year, the quality of childcare was worse in France than the UK, and costs were higher.

More at:  Childcare sector awaits reform plans as nurseries struggle to make ends meet

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