Penelope Leach on childcare ratios
Earlier this week the government announced changes to the way childcare is managed and regulated, including increases in the number of children that can be cared for by each adult. Liz Truss MP, the minister with responsibility for childcare, wrote a guest blog on the thinking behind the changes.
Here childcare expert Penelope Leach looks at the newly proposed childcare ratios, and asks: is everyone out of step except Ms Truss?
Does this supposedly democratic government really take any notice of public opinion? The PM says that he'll give a yes-no, in–or-out vote for Europe to everyone, whether they really know or care anything about it. Yet here's Elizabeth Truss imposing decisions about childcare on all the people who really do know about it. Possibly most of them more than she does. (I can't help wondering if she has ever used non-family, out-of-home care for a child of her own.)
It's clear that if a yes-no on Ms Truss's proposals were put to everyone who provides, uses, trains, inspects, or researches child care, whether in nurseries or with child minders, the No's would be a huge majority. I'm tempted to say that nobody is in favour of them but I won't, because a few people (5% of Mumsnetters surveyed in June 2012) did vote in favour. Perhaps they believed that changing ratios would reduce costs to parents, so let's deal with that one first.
Allowing nurseries to take on more children with the number of staff they currently employ, or to sack some staff while keeping the number of children they currently care for, will not reduce the costs of child care to parents. Why on earth should it? Does Ms Truss really think that a nursery – or a nursery chain's headquarters – will divide the fees of the extra children they are allowed to take among the parents of the children they' ve already got so as to give them a cut? Of course not. Any extra income from extra children will go to the nurseries.
Maybe it will enable some who are struggling to stay in business, which will be a good thing. But if that's Ms Truss's real intention could she please be honest about it? There are many ways of supporting nurseries without downgrading the standard of care they offer - which this plan will certainly do. Spend a day in the baby room of a good nursery and you won't see a lack of GCSE C-grade maths. But you will (even now) see that dividing the total available adult arms by the number of children potentially needing them leaves tears shed and nappies soiled for longer than any parent would like to see. Add another baby (old ratio 1:3; new ratio 1:4) and there‘s half an arm per child available. Can you give a baby a bottle or a cuddle with half an arm? I can't and I bet Ms Truss hasn't even tried.
The new ratios for toddlers are just as horrible. Instead of four two year olds one adult must manage six. Can you imagine keeping six young toddlers safe, happy, busy, fed, clean enough for comfort, and talked to and played with and read to as well? Is it GCSE's they need - or more professional training and maturity, manageable ratios and money? And space, of course. Combining two groups of toddlers with 2 nursery nurses is known to be better for everyone, but how many nurseries have playrooms big enough for two adults and 12 two year olds without having to strap them into highchairs and swing seats not just for lunch but for anytime safety (which is pretty standard practice in the French institutions she so admires).
I sincerely doubt that anyone will make money out of the proposed changes in ratios for childminders, because while they really might reduce fees per family if they took more children, none – OK almost none – of them will take the newly permitted numbers. Why? Because a job which many good child minders already find it exceedingly difficult to do well will become impossible to do even passably.
At present their total of six children under eight can only include three under-fives and one baby - usually two schoolchildren between five and eight join in from 3.15 and are there at half term and in the holidays. It's already a lot, especially if the under-fives are under-threes. And when all six are there, space is at a premium in most child minders' homes. The new ratios will allow the same total of six children but four can be under-fives (often toddlers) and two can be babies under one year. I wonder if Ms Truss has talked to any mothers who are at home with twin babies? Mothers who are at home with twin babies and a toddler? What about twin babies, a two year old, a three year old and a four year old? That's still one under- five fewer than will be allowed. You can carry one baby around while you supervise under- fives; but two babies? You can put one baby and the youngest toddler in a twin buggy and have the other two holding on – just – but if the buggy's got two babies in it you're done for unless Ms Truss is going to make triplet buggies available for free. How are you going to get to the park or the swings?
Child minders work alone. That's the best and the worst thing about them. Calm consistency for the children, but nobody to call on in an emergency and a bit lonely too. Most deal with the loneliness (and keep up the quality of their care) by going to play groups and music groups and lets-have-a-picnic groups and for that you need to take the children in a car. Is the government going to finance seven-seaters complete with appropriate child seats? No chance.
So whose tune are we marching to and is it really Ms Truss who is in step?
- Find out more about the government's proposed changes
- Tell us what you think on the Talk thread
- See the results of our childcare costs survey
- Get advice and info on our childcare pages