After two years of consulting on the opening of an envelope, I find it amazing that Liz Truss has announced the biggest changes to childcare for 10 years without any consultation and against a united voice of opposition from the sector.
Under these plans the ratio of children to child carers would rise from four two-year-olds for every one member of staff to six, while the ratio for children aged up to two will go up from three to four for every one member of staff.
My real frustration is the ‘smoke and mirrors’ briefing to the media which leads parents to believe that this is about making childcare more affordable. The whole plan has not been properly thought out. Reducing ratios will not make childcare more affordable, as the Government is also saying that staff must be better trained and better paid. That means any saving on ratios will be passed on to staff salaries, or used to offset the current losses nursery care providers make as a result of too low a rate for the Government-funded spaces for three and four year olds.
This is not to mention the sheer practicalities of having one member of staff looking after six children aged two – everyone in the sector has been inviting Liz Truss to come and spend a day in their two-year-old rooms to see for herself how what she is suggesting will work.
I’ll be interested to see what comes out of the promised budget announcements. In an ideal world, Ministers would be looking at a significant increase in Employer Childcare Vouchers rather than this, which really would make a difference to many working families.
There are some welcome points in the announcement: a new qualification for senior practitioners is going to come in, which is the Early Years Teacher. This should go some way to address the historical inequality between Early Years Professionals and Qualified Teacher Status; EYPs were not on a par with QTS, causing bad feeling and a significant pay gap. However, the Government does not make it clear how EYTs will be paid the higher salaries they will naturally demand; this could push fees up, unless there is some subsidy available to support the higher salaries.
As a company we introduced a requirement that our staff have the basic qualifications being set out in the report, as we felt that the rigours of delivering the Early Years Foundation Stage required a minimum level of academic qualification. Whatever your academic background, it does not give anyone more laps to sit on, more arms for hugs, or the ability to change six nappies at once!
Most of all, I am concerned that the reduction in ratios will lead to a two-tier system: discerning parents who can afford to pay higher fees or feel it is vital, will use nurseries and childminders who pin their colours to the mast by maintaining or exceeding current ratios. Those in most deprived areas, where nurseries are already struggling to survive, will have to embrace lower ratios, but this may be at the cost of quality.
I would certainly call on the Government to hold off on these changes until they have taken the time to get the full views of the sector it is proposing to change. Altogether, the current situation is not a satisfactory state of affairs. To use the alarmingly accurate parody provided by ‘Yes, Minister’ I don’t know where Liz Truss’s own Sir Humphrey was when she made these plans, but he was definitely snoozing.