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Child-care Ratios

Volume 563: debated on Thursday 9 May 2013

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement on the Government’s plans for changes to statutory regulations for child-care ratios.

The Government announced in January, in the “More great childcare” document, the intention to give nurseries more flexibility over staff-child ratios where they employ suitably qualified staff. We have consulted on what those qualifications should be. The consultation closed at the end of March. We are now considering the responses and will make further announcements in due course.

The current system of child care is not working for parents. Too many parents in the UK are struggling to juggle their work and child care arrangements. Families in England pay some of the highest costs in the world, with 27% of their income going on child care, compared with 11% in countries such as France. We also know that this Government spend more than £5 billion on child care, which is twice the OECD average, and as much as countries such as France and more than countries such as Germany. As well as our new schemes, such as tax-free child care, we need to ensure that we get better value for money for the investment that the Government put in, so we are looking at other countries, such as France, Ireland, Holland and Germany, which manage to combine high quality and affordability in their child care provision.

At present, we have the tightest ratios in Europe for children under three. We also have the lowest staff salaries. Nursery staff here earn £6.60 an hour on average, which is barely above the minimum wage. Annual earnings are £13,000, which is well below the averages of £16,000 in France, £20,000 in Denmark and £22,000 in Sweden. The ratio for two-year-olds in England is 4:1, whereas it is 6:1 in Ireland, 6:1 in Germany and 8:1 in France, while in Denmark and Sweden—countries that the shadow Secretary of State has explicitly advocated—there are no national staff ratios at all.

Our proposals will allow nurseries that hire high-quality staff to exercise professional judgment. This is exactly the same concept that we have used in academies, giving high-quality institutions the autonomy to make decisions for themselves and to exercise professional judgment. The ratios are not compulsory. This is about professionals in the child care sector being able to exercise their judgment and to deliver an affordable, high-quality service to parents. Our evidence suggests that—[Interruption.] Well, the Department for Education economists have looked at this in detail, and our evidence suggests that nurseries will be able to pay higher staff salaries and reduce costs to parents.

Let us remember the legacy of the previous Labour Government. The real cost of child care, which every family in this country faces, has risen by 77% in real terms since 2003, and child care inflation is going up by 6% every year. If we do not do something about this by reforming the supply of child care, it will become prohibitively expensive and many parents will not be able to afford to go out to work. We also want to encourage more providers to use the higher ratios for three and four-year-olds and to hire high-quality staff. All the international evidence from organisations such as the OECD suggests that the higher the quality of the staff, the better the outcomes for children. The previous Labour Government have admitted that, during their period of office, they got this wrong. The number of childminders halved, child care costs doubled, and Beverley Hughes, the former children’s Minister, admitted that Labour had got it wrong.

Well, yesterday we were told that the Government were pushing ahead with their plans to weaken child-care ratios despite widespread opposition. Late last night, however, the ink was not even dry on the Gracious Speech when we learned that the Government might in fact be U-turning on their policy. Is not this yet another example of chaos and incompetence at the heart of Government policy making?

When the Minister came to the House in January to announce this policy, we told her that she was threatening the quality of child care, doing nothing to address the spiralling costs of child care and dismissing the advice of her own experts. Since then, the—[Interruption.]

Order. The shadow Secretary of State is trying to make his points, yet there is a quite separate exchange being conducted at the same time. That should not be happening, and I say to the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), whom it is always a delight to see in the Chamber, that she arrived late for the urgent question. She cannot therefore participate in it on her feet, and she certainly should not do so from her seat.

Since that announcement in January, the scale of public opposition to the Minister’s plans has been overwhelming. The Government’s own adviser on childcare, Professor Cathy Nutbrown, has said that the ratio plans make “no sense at all”. Today, the Minister has said that all the evidence demonstrates that what she is doing is right, but who supports her proposals? Is not this yet another episode of bad policy making by the Education Secretary? First we had the fiasco of shutting down school sport partnerships. Then we had the disastrous attempt to bring back CSEs and O-levels. Now we have a child care policy that is rejected by parents, nursery providers and the Government’s own experts. Will she think again and rule out this damaging policy once and for all? What lessons will she and her Secretary of State learn from this latest shambles? Does not this show once again that this Government have no plan for hard-working families?

I have already outlined what our plans are; we announced them in our “More great childcare” proposal. Our plans have the support of Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, who commented on them in a recent speech. He has accepted the principle of higher-qualified staff having more professional autonomy. Andreas Schleicher of the OECD also supports our plans. Of course opinion is divided within the British academic establishment, as it is on many education issues. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman however that these policies are alive and well in France, Ireland, Holland and Germany. There is not a single country, including Scotland, where the ratios as are low as they are here in England. Furthermore, he has not come up with any response on what he plans to do about the appallingly low wages in the child care sector or the high levels of staff turnover, or with any ideas about how he is going to reduce costs. Is this another spending commitment that he is pledging when his party has already pledged many more spending commitments than it has the money to pay for?

I am so pleased that the Minister is looking at ways to bring down the cost of child care for hard-working families. In her consultation, did she hear from the childminder who has four children who stay until 1 o’clock but who, because of these very inflexible regulations, has to say no the parent who wants to drop off an additional child at 12.30?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. Many childminders—I recently held a round table meeting with them—told me that they welcome the additional flexibility that they will have under our rules. They also welcome the increased level of trust that we are placing in child care professionals. Rather than dictating from Whitehall what they should be doing, we have a strong inspection regime, we are recruiting new Her Majesty’s inspectors into the sector and we are giving more professional responsibility to people on the ground.

I have been struck by the number of people in my constituency raising with me their concerns about these proposals. They are concerned that they are rushed and ill thought through. Will the Minister apologise for the manner in which this proposal has been debated in the country, and will she commit to listen properly to people like my mum who have spent their lives in child care?

Our policy is all about giving the hon. Lady’s mum more say over how she runs her own child care. It is a very important principle that no nursery care assistant or childminder is going to be forced to look after more children. What we are doing is allowing them to exercise professional responsibility. We are also doing something about the exorbitant costs that Labour created in our child care system. How on earth can Labour Members be proud of a record of having the highest child care costs in Europe?

May I first refer the House to my interest as the father of a nine-month-old baby who will be going to nursery in September? I ask the Minister to listen carefully to the representations of those who are concerned about the ratios, particularly for very young children and believe that those ratios should be very low.

Of course, there will be different requirements for different children, depending on their age and their level of development. Our policies are about increasing the level of professional judgment that child care workers are able to exercise to cater for the different ages and the different stages of development of the children they are looking after. I would point out to my hon. Friend that many parents in other countries where more flexibility is given to local providers are extremely happy with the quality of care they receive—in fact, they are happier than parents here.

Obviously, whoever was babysitting the Deputy Prime Minister this morning did not do a very good job, as on LBC this morning, he apparently insisted that the Government’s child care policy will be reversed. Is the Minister sure that this policy will be implemented?

As I said, we have outlined our policy in “More great childcare”, and we are currently consulting on the level of qualifications required to put those ratios in place.

Many parents sending their child to a childminder simply want somewhere that is safe and where their child will be happy while they go out to work. Is it really necessary for childminders to be turned into mini schools for very young children, where those children will be judged on educational attainment rather than on how happy and safe they are?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Our policies are all about giving parents more choice over the type of child care they receive. I, like him, am very supportive of childminders. Their number halved under the previous Government because of the additional rules and regulations that were put in place and how they were managed.

The Minister was piling them so high and wanting to teach them so cheap that things were bound to come crashing down at some point. She cited economists in favour of the proposals, and she cited the head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, as being in favour of better qualifications—but not, I note, in favour of higher ratios—but what about parents and child carers themselves? Can the Minister tell us which parents and child carers supported her proposals?

The whole point of our proposals is that they give parents more choice. If parents want their child to attend a nursery that is more structured and that is teacher-led with larger groups, they should be able to have that choice. The excellent écoles maternelles and nurseries available in France simply could not run in this country because of the regulations we have at the moment. If parents would rather have a smaller group size and a less well-qualified staff member, that is entirely up to them—it is about choice.

Does the Minister agree that the current rigid child-to-staff ratio holds back opportunities for staff and the salaries that they can earn, and that that is why we need a more flexible system?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Interestingly, there is a much larger gap between what primary school staff and nursery staff are paid in this country compared with countries such as Denmark, Sweden and France, where those working in early-years are highly respected and allowed much more professional judgment; they are treated as professionals. That is not what happened in this country under the previous Government. Salaries are £6.60 an hour, on average. I really do not understand how that can be justified.

Last month, I met childminders and nursery providers in my constituency specifically to ask their views on the Government’s proposals, and I must tell the Minister that they were unanimously opposed to them. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) doubts that, but I met them specifically to discuss the proposals and that was their response. I cannot go back on my undertaking to bring what they told me to the Minister’s attention, and that is what I am doing. One reason why child-care costs are very high in this country is the cost of premises, yet childminders told me that one reason for not being able to take on more children was that they would not have the space to do so. What will the Minister do to increase the supply of suitable space?

I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that the cost of staff represents 70% of the average cost of a nursery, and that the cost of premises is only a small part of the overheads that account for the remaining 30%. Staff cost is the major driver of the cost of child-care places. The ratios hold down staff costs and staff salaries, which makes it difficult to attract people to the profession and means higher costs for parents.

There are many excellent child-care providers in Kettering, but there are not enough. Is not one of the problems faced by nurseries and child-care providers that there are more than 400 early-years qualifications and child-care providers find it difficult to assess whether those qualifications are the best that should be available?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are introducing an early-years educator qualification, which will be the only criteria for judging whether someone should have a qualification at level 3. In order to get that qualification, someone will be required to have an English and maths grade C at GCSE, which will ensure that we get higher quality in the profession. We are also introducing early-year teachers, which, again, will involve a single qualification at graduate level.

The Minister referred to trusting the judgment of the professionals, but the professionals in my constituency who met me to discuss the proposals are unanimously against them. Why will she not listen to them and stop confusing the need to improve qualifications in early years with the ratios? However many qualifications someone has, it does not give them an extra pair of hands to look after the number of toddlers the Minister is suggesting.

It is interesting that nobody on the Opposition Benches has addressed the issue that these ratios are operating in Ireland, France and Germany. Are Opposition Members saying that the quality of child care in those countries is not good enough? Are they saying that high-quality providers from those countries should not be able to operate in this country? As for the hon. Lady’s point about the nurseries in her constituency, they are absolutely free to carry on operating as they operate now. This policy is about giving parents the ability to make different choices and the kind of choices that parents have in other countries, where they pay a lot less for child care and they receive high-quality care.

Child care is often provided by small businesses, which have to adapt when staff are away for training or because of sickness. Can the Minister confirm what effect staff absence will have on child-adult ratios?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; he makes the very good point that at the moment there is no flexibility for nurseries if staff are absent. Either they must not take a particular child or they have to find additional staff at a cost, and we know that many nurseries are struggling to be sustainable. The ratios offer flexibility for different situations: for example, at the time of day when children might be sleeping, when less supervision is required, or when parents come to pick up their children. Our proposals are about allowing nurseries to exercise professional judgment and flexibility in how they staff them.

Does the shambles in this Government’s child-care policy not also extend to what they are doing with the tax and benefits system? Is the Minister aware that her colleague, the Economic Secretary, gave me information in a written answer last month that shows that more than half of all families will not benefit at all from the tax break or universal credit plans?

Order. The disadvantage of that question is that it does not relate to the terms of the urgent question, so we will leave it there.

Are there not two key issues? First, the question of ratios is linked to high-quality staff, which itself has a cost. Secondly, the reforms are enabling, not compulsory, and parents can continue to choose the right setting for their child.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Labour Members have not come up with any answers as to how they would incentivise nurseries to improve quality and staff salaries or how they would reduce costs in the system that they created, which is now one of the most expensive in the world.

I am aware that the Minister has long championed the policy of loosening the child-care ratios. Indeed, before she joined the Front-Bench team she was writing pamphlets about it. However, if she is so convinced of the merits of the policy, why will she not publish the Penn report, which her Department commissioned, and why has the Deputy Prime Minister let it be known in the past 24 hours that he does not support her pet policy?

We will be publishing research when we publish the results of the Childcare Commission in due course.

Does the Minister agree that there are two kinds of help with nursery schools? There are those who advocate socialism—that is, they want there to be expensive nursery places, but very few of them—and there are those who make decisions for themselves. They can stand on their own feet and make their own decisions about what they want for their children.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and he is absolutely right. What the Opposition are effectively saying is that a lot of parents should be priced out of the market and should not have the opportunities of parents in other countries to access high-quality and affordable child care. The previous Labour Minister, Beverley Hughes, admitted that Labour had got it wrong on child care, so perhaps the Opposition need to think again.

I can; Sir Michael Wilshaw wrote an article in Nursery World where he said that he supported the idea of higher qualifications for—[Interruption.] Let me finish my point. He supported higher qualifications for higher ratios for three and four-year-olds and he agreed that that should be extended down the age range.

Is this not a debate about the quality of the staff, rather than the number of the staff? Will affecting the ratios not improve the status and professionalism of the profession?

I completely agree. As with so many of their policies, the previous Government focused on inputs and targets, not outcomes. A third of children now entering primary school do not have the requisite communications and language skills, despite the fact that we have 96% uptake in our early-years places. It is about quality, outcomes and allowing autonomy and professional judgment.

Has the Minister had any other advice from the Deputy Prime Minister about child care? Which part of the schools or social care budget will be cut to fill the huge void in resources to deliver the provision that the Minister has promised, while maintaining the adult-child ratios required by parents and the Deputy Prime Minister?

As I outlined earlier, we as a Government are spending more than £5 billion on early-years education and child care, which is equivalent to countries such as France and Germany, where parents pay a lot less. The reason that it is so expensive is that we have a hugely cumbersome system with many different funding streams. I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary is here today. He announced tax-free child care, which will be a much simpler scheme than the voucher scheme under the previous Government. We are reforming the system to get better value for money and better quality and affordability for parents.

Has my hon. Friend noticed that, in his keenness to ask his question, the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), seems to have overlooked his comments of just two weeks ago, when he said:

“I visited Sweden last year and saw for myself how supporting the supply of quality childcare gives parents choice, affordability and good quality places?”,

Yet the Swedes have no mandatory child-staff ratios at all. Does that not demonstrate that the only shambles is in the thinking of the shadow Secretary of State?

Absolutely; I could not have put it better myself. Salaries in Sweden for child-care workers are £22,000. I would be very interested to understand how the shadow Secretary of State thinks he is going to get that money and where it will come from.

With the Deputy Prime Minister rubbishing the proposals, is not the policy dead in the water and another example of the shambles of this Government?

As I said, we announced our policy in “More great childcare” in January. We are consulting on the level of qualifications required to fulfil the ratios.

Helping working parents and creating small businesses are two very important parts of the Government’s programme. Does my hon. Friend agree that her proposals will make it more attractive to child-care professionals to set up as childminders, and at the same time improve the access to child-care provision in many areas across the country where at present it is sadly lacking?

My hon. Friend is right. We are taking other steps, including reforming the role of the local authority so that there is no duplication among local authorities and Ofsted, and improving the clarity of qualifications so that it will be easier for people to set up high-quality child-care businesses and be focused on the outcomes for children, in contrast to the very prescriptive regulations which have pushed up costs and held down salaries.

May I thank the shadow Secretary of State for asking the urgent question? He has allowed our excellent Minister to expound a good Tory policy. It is always good when we look at the European Union and copy what is good in it. There is one serious point here. If the Deputy Prime Minister wants to comment—if he does not want to run away from something that he has agreed on—he should be in the House making that comment, not on a radio programme. I suggest that we press on with the policy and ignore the Liberal Democrats.

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for our policy. He is absolutely right. We should look to other countries that have done better. Rather than harking back to their failure in office, the Opposition should be seeking inspiration from countries such as Sweden, Denmark and France and looking at what goes well there. I would like to know whether any Labour Members have been to see French provision for the under- twos and seen how good it is. I bet they have not.