Clegg says no to childcare ratio changes. My question is: why’s it the Government’s job to dictate them?

by Stephen Tall on June 6, 2013

teather_cleggNick Clegg’s statement is categorical — the Coalition is abandoning plans to allow nurseries and childminders in England to look after more children. Revealed in January by Conservative children’s minister Liz Truss, the idea that the ratio for under 2s, for example, could increase from 1:4 to 1:6 was always going to be controversial. Here’s Nick:

“One of my absolute top priorities in government is to deliver better quality, more affordable childcare for parents up and down the country. I will relentlessly champion and pursue policies that deliver that – like 15 hours a week of free childcare for every three and four year old and tax-free childcare for working families.

“When you are talking about something this important to parents, I think it is imperative to be led by the evidence – which is overwhelmingly against changing the rules on ratios. The proposals to increase ratios were put out to consultation and were roundly criticised by parents, providers and experts alike. Most importantly, there is no real evidence that increasing ratios will reduce the cost of childcare for families.

“The argument that this will help families with their weekly childcare bill simply does not stack up. I cannot ask parents to accept such a controversial change with no real guarantee it will save them money – in fact it could cost them more. I have concluded that, because it will not reduce costs for parents or increase the quality of childcare, the proposed ratio changes for pre-school children cannot proceed.

“Ratios for pre-school children is just one part of a wider package of reforms being looked at in government. I will continue to work closely with ministerial colleagues in this area and the Coalition Government will come forward with other proposals in due course.”

The Coalition’s internal debate has been played out to maximum public exposure. The original announcement was relayed as agreed Coalition policy, but that was swiftly refuted by Lib Dems who said Nick Clegg had agreed only to a consultation on the raising of ratios.

Whether you think the Tories tried to bounce the policy through by announcing something that wasn’t agreed, or whether you think Nick Clegg reneged on an agreement once it proved controversial, will depend on your own loyalties. Maybe it was just a plain, old-fashioned misunderstanding. Either way it hasn’t made the Coalition’s plans in this crucial policy area look joined-up.

On the issue itself, I remain puzzled.

I can see the argument that raising ratios might impact on the quality of childcare provision. Intuitively, one adult looking after six 2 year-olds rather than four could impact on quality.

Then again, would I rather my child was looked after by three highly experienced childminders in a group of 18, or four less well-qualified childminders in a group of 16? I think I’d prefer the former, thanks.

More importantly, I’d like to make my own mind up having visited the nursery and spoken to staff and other parents — not be told by the Deputy Prime Minister that “he cannot ask me” to make that decision. So long as it satisfies Ofsted as regulator, and as long as the children, parents and staff are happy, why is it the Government’s business exactly what the ratio is?

PS: it’s worth reading Liz Truss’s pamphlet for CentreForum ‘Affordable quality: new approaches to childcare’ (May 2012) where the UK’s approach to childcare is placed in a European context.

As she points out there, savings from moving to higher ratios would give nurseries a choice: “either higher paid staff to be attracted to the profession improving quality and availability or alternatively [making] the service more affordable.” Government sticking to rigid ratios removes that flexibility.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.

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