The government is set to scrap some of the regulations governing childcare in England.
Staff will be able to look after larger groups of children, in what ministers are describing as an effort to cut the onerous cost of childcare for parents.
The government will also raise the standard of qualifications needed for carers of pre-school children, saying too many carers don’t have a GCSE in English or Maths.
And Oftsed will take on the burden of inspecting nurseries, leaving local councils out of the loop.
Education Minister Liz Truss says the reforms will mean higher standards, less red tape, higher pay for carers, more choice of provider, savings for parents and an increase of women in the job market.
But the announcement has provoked a chorus of disapproval from charities and bodies representing childminders.
What really happens in other countries?
The government is going to relax the rules on the maximum number of children one carer can look after, as long as they meet unspecified new quality standards. The changes are summarised in this table, which also provides a comparison with other European countries.
This is a key plank of the government’s argument – that Britain is over-regulated and should be brought into line with our European neighbours, where larger group sizes are the norm.
Ms Truss said today: “We have learned from other countries that deliver better-value and better-quality childcare. We have looked across Europe and beyond. The aim is not to replicate another country’s approach but to learn from and apply best practice.
“I have been particularly struck by the high status and trust afforded to childcare professionals in continental Europe. In particular, I am impressed by much of what happens in France.”
It wasn’t always thus. Last year the country the minister liked to talk about most was the Netherlands. That appears to have fallen by the wayside now, possibly because there’s increasing criticism of deregulation there.
Eva Lloyd, a Dutch-speaking leading expert on the subject at the University of East London, has repeatedly cast doubt on the effectiveness of the Netherlands reforms.
Citing this long-term study of childcare quality in the country, she highlights “a steady deterioration in centre-based childcare quality in the Netherlands…recently this appears to have been partly driven by this policy of deregulation”.
She cites numerous other problems with the Dutch reforms, some of which need not necessarily be repeated in Britain, but most damning of all is the conclusion that “lower ratios are associated with positive developmental indicators .. research shows that children’s social and cognitive development is enhanced in classrooms with a lower child-to-staff ratio and smaller group size”.
That’s very much off-message. But if all our European neighbours are happy to have less regulation and bigger groups of children per carer, what’s the problem?
Well, they don’t necessarily have less regulation and they’re not all happy with bigger carer-to-child rations.
Ms Truss mentioned Denmark today as a country with no official mandatory ratios, which is true in the rather technical sense that group size is not a legal requirement.
It is something that childcare providers monitor, and the Danish government keeps a careful eye on the numbers. Last year Christine Antorini, the Danish minister for children and education, announced an extra £59m of funding to help nurseries employ more staff to keep ratios down.
So one country cited by Ms Truss as an example Britain should be following is demonstrably moving in the opposite direction to the one she is proposing.
The minister has recently concentrated on praising the French system, but there is a debate about carer-child ratios in that country too.
The left-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank says comparisons between England and France are “misleading” because far fewer French children are looked after in settings where the ratios apply.
Should childminders be better qualified?
It’s a fairly uncontroversial suggestion, although there is a lack of evidence about how important academic qualifications are for people looking after the youngest children.
The government’s own review of a programme that aimed to get more graduates working in nurseries found that having better-qualified staff was linked to “significant improvements in quality” for older children.
But there was no evidence of improvement for children aged 30 months and under. The researchers concluded that “qualifications and quality were less related for the infant/toddler age range”.
The problem was that very few of the graduates were asked to work with the youngest children, so the authors of the report found it impossible to draw any firm conclusions.
That doesn’t mean having more highly qualified staff is a bad thing, just that there is a gap in our knowledge about how important a factor it is. But the government has nevertheless decided to make push higher qualifications as a central strand in its new policy.
Will parents pay less?
The million-dollar question for many families is the one no one can answer yet. The logic of the government’s reform package is that nurseries will be able to hire more staff, make more money and pass the saving on to parents.
There’s no dispute about the scale of the existing problem. OECD figures show that net childcare costs are higher in the UK as a percentage of family income than in any other developed country except Switzerland.
But is this policy the best way to lower costs?
Ministers also want employers to employ better qualified staff and pay them more. Won’t that cancel out the savings made from lower staff-to-children ratios?
And what is to stop private childcare providers, particularly the big chains controlled by private equity, extracting more profit while keeping prices high?
So far there are no real answers to these questions. Essentially the government is trusting to market forces to make things more competitive, but there’s no real guarantee that fees will drop.
By Patrick Worrall