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Early Intervention and Child Care

Volume 559: debated on Monday 4 March 2013

The affordability and availability of child care are a concern for many working parents, yet staff wages are often too low to support high-quality provision. “More great childcare” outlined reforms to improve quality and availability. We will introduce rigorous new inspection, new qualifications for early years teachers and new flexibilities to enable providers to deliver what is best for children. Childminder agencies will reverse the decline in the numbers of childminders.

Stoke-on-Trent has been hit harder than almost any other local authority in the country, including by a massive hit to early intervention funding—despite it being one of the most deprived areas facing the greatest need. If the Minister expects her claim to want to improve the quality of child care to be taken seriously, perhaps she will tell us what arguments she has had with Ministers in her own Department and indeed in the Department for Communities and Local Government to tackle these pernicious cuts?

Overall, we have increased early intervention funding from £2.2 billion to £2.5 billion. We are also introducing a new scheme for low-income two-year-olds, starting this September and the following September, which will make sure that those two-year-olds access high-quality provision from good and outstanding providers. Let us face the fact, however, that over 13 years of Labour government what we ended up with was the most unaffordable child care in Europe as well as the lowest salaries with staff paid only £6.60 an hour.

As the Minister said, child care workers in England are paid barely more than the minimum wage. Does she agree that the present rigid staff-child ratios place a cap on wages and therefore on the quality of staff?

I completely agree with what my hon. Friend has just said. Let us make it clear that we will allow more flexibility in ratios only for high-quality providers where high-quality staff are being hired. The aim, as advocated by the shadow Secretary of State, is to move to systems such as those of Sweden and Denmark, which have high-quality providers, high-quality staff and more flexibility and professional judgment operated at a local level. Everyone, from Andreas Schleicher of the OECD to Sir Michael Wilshaw, backs that plan to raise quality.

20. In welcoming the move to a better qualified child care work force, I raise the case of Becky, who has dyslexia and will struggle to achieve the necessary GCSEs for working in child care. Does the Minister accept that for people such as Becky there needs to be a balance between academic and vocational child care qualifications, which means that qualifications should be focused on identifying the people who are best at working with children, not just on those who can pass exams? (145473)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but all the international evidence from EPPE— the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education—to the OECD “Starting Strong” survey indicates a strong relationship between the qualifications people have, the quality of the child care provision and the outcomes for the children. I think there should be some flexibility in the system, however, so we can get high-quality people and improve vocational training and apprenticeships. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman respond to the consultation on precisely the point he raised.

Many people, including the shadow Education Secretary, have praised the Scandinavian approach to child care. Will the Minister confirm that in Sweden and Denmark there is no mandatory national child care ratio at all?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are no national ratios. Indeed, in parts of Sweden, no ratios at all are set for some nurseries. What the Swedes do is to rely on high-quality professionals exercising their professional judgment in the particular setting. That is the system we want to move to here. It is backed by the OECD and by Sir Michael Wilshaw of Ofsted, so I suggest the Opposition back it as well.

I am sorry to say that I truly believe that the Minister and the Secretary of State sat before us today are the most out of touch in the whole of Whitehall—apart from those in Downing street, that is. They pursue policies such as increasing child care ratios that generate almost unanimous opposition from across the country, to which they refuse to listen while systematically undermining popular services such as Sure Start by slashing the budget by almost half. When will they start listening to the people whom they are supposed to serve and put the best interests of children and families—rather than dogma and pet policies—at the forefront of their policy?

I have already pointed out that there is strong evidence for our reforms, and I point out to the hon. Lady that fewer than 1% of Sure Start centres have closed. They provide about 4% of full-time child care places. I would be interested to hear what the hon. Lady’s policies are for the other 96% of child care places and how she plans to make them more affordable. Under her watch, fewer women or mothers went out to work, and we were overtaken by countries such as France and Germany. What is her solution to that?