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Child Care

Volume 578: debated on Wednesday 2 April 2014

Child care is a crucial issue for many working families around Norwich, and I am grateful for the opportunity to raise it. I have been talking to a lot of mums, dads, nurseries and pre-schools in Norwich, and I would like to express on their behalf some of their concerns about the quality and affordability of child care. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) has been absolutely right to say in the past that a changing economy means that parents need affordable and available child care more than ever, and that, at the same time, a changing world means that children need a rigorous and rounded education more than ever. I agree with her that we have the opportunity to do both at once.

I would like to put the issue in context. Let us not forget the tax and benefit changes that are coming into effect this very week—the biggest changes in a generation—which will create more jobs and get more people off welfare and into work. Child care naturally follows from parents going out to work, so it is crucial to see it in the context of the whole economy. It is also clear this week that only by sticking to a long-term economic plan will we build a more resilient economy that provides a more financially secure future for families. We cannot look at the cost of living in isolation, and there can be no economic or household security if the public finances are not under control.

I want to look briefly at the Asda income tracker—the Mumdex—which was published this week. In February, the average UK household had £169 of discretionary income a week, up by £5 a week, year on year, and interestingly representing the fastest growth in family spending power since November 2012. That was the fifth month in a row that families had seen their household incomes rise—a rise boosted by a fall in the price of petrol, which is 5% lower than in the same month last year, easing the pressure on household finances. I do not cite those figures to try to explain that everything is currently easy for parents and families, because we all know that it is not, but it is important to note that things are slowly improving. Such improvements in family finances can, of course, come about only with the control of the public finances, and through the serious decisions that a Government can take, and that this Government have taken, about what to spend hard-earned taxes on.

I am particularly pleased that the Chancellor has put public money towards the tax-free child care scheme outlined in the Budget, because it stands to ease costs for families even further. I am also pleased that the scheme will be bigger and faster than first outlined, and glad that it will particularly help families who face the real squeeze—basic rate taxpayers who often find that the cost of child care outweighs the financial benefits of both parents working.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising such an important issue. I am one of the few MPs who had two children in child care during the days of the last Labour Government, and I watched as my child care costs spiralled. I am disgusted that no Opposition Members are present to hear what my hon. Friend has to say. Does she agree that the Government’s support for child care will bring much-needed respite and help to working parents who struggled desperately with the added bureaucracy and cost of child care under the previous Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am very interested to hear about her personal experience. I agree with her, and think that the Government’s support for child care will give families greater stability and flexibility, so that they can make choices about what best suits their family picture. I know that the Minister is passionate about that.

In response to my hon. Friend, I would like to refer to a constituent, Mr C, who told me:

“I’m now on 10k a year, at 39 years of age. My wife, an amazing mother, has to stay at home to look after two of our children, as we cannot afford the child care or would be worse off if my wife went to work”.

I have obviously spoken to that constituent about the changes that will be coming in with universal credit, for example, which I think will help with his wife’s choices about going out to work. Also, the personal allowance will rise to £10,500 from April 2015. Based on the figures he cited, my constituent may be one of the 400 people in Norwich North who will be taken out of tax entirely. He will certainly be one of the more than 38,000 people in my constituency who will benefit from our tax changes overall. On top of that, it may just be that he and his wife would benefit from the tax-free child care scheme, if she chose to work.

I also welcome the targeted provision of taxpayer-funded child care for families on the lowest incomes. We began with all three and four-year-olds receiving 15 hours a week of free child care, and have gone on to target the offer at the 240,000 poorest two-year-olds. However, the provision to spend taxpayers’ money in that way is nothing if people do not know about it. I am therefore keen to use today’s debate to call on Norwich parents, as well as others around the country, to take up what they are now entitled to by law.

In Education questions last week, my hon. Friend the Minister confirmed to me that 1,537 two-year-olds in our shared county of Norfolk are now enrolled in the programme. I am pleased to see that number of families on lower incomes making the most of the help available once their child turns two, but I think that the number actually represents fewer than half of the eligible children in our county, according to the figures published when the Minister first made the announcement. Will she confirm, either today or perhaps by letter later, whether that is one of the lowest percentages of target met by a local authority in the east of England? That appears to be suggested by table seven on page 20 of the Family and Childcare Trust’s 2014 survey, so I would be interested to know whether that is indeed the case in our shared county of Norfolk. In any case, I strongly urge Norwich families to take up the taxpayer funding that has been put aside, and say to constituents that if they are not sure whether they are eligible, they should please check the county council website, because that funding is there to help them.

Turning to issues of quality, I want to be absolutely clear that I want more great child care available for children, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) has described, and I want to be able to provide more choice and flexibility for parents. I want it to be easier for new providers to enter the market and for good existing providers to expand, because that brings consequent benefits in both affordability and quality. My hon. Friend the Minister has previously given the example of countries such as France and Germany, which have excellent systems for comparable amounts of Government spending, while paying staff good salaries and keeping costs affordable for parents. For me, those are the crucial things that we want British child care to achieve for parents and children.

I would like to give some examples. My hon. Friend the Minister and I recently visited Magdalen Gates pre-school in north Norwich, which has been rated “good” by Ofsted and also won multiple awards. Staff there would like to expand, but they are concerned about the sheer scale of the project of extending a building. As child carers, they do not feel that that is an area in which they have expertise, but as they are on an enclosed city site, it is one of the few things that they could do to provide more places. Will the Minister explain what she is doing to set such sites free from bureaucracy? Will she also lay out what she expects from local authorities—or, indeed, from local educational chains—in terms of sharing services to help parents more?

A second example is the Acorn playgroup in Thorpe St Andrew in Norwich, which is rated “outstanding” by Ofsted. Staff there are also greatly interested in running more places for two-year-olds under the scheme I have discussed, but they are concerned about the pressure of having two-year-olds through to four-and-a-half-year-olds in the same limited physical space. Will the Minister explain how she expects good settings to be able to deal with such concerns in the short term?

My third example is another nursery school in my constituency that is rated “good”, the Once Upon A Time nursery. Staff there raised with me the point that, inevitably, the rate paid for the free provision—it is of course paid for by taxpayers and is free only at the point of use—differs from the market rate. Other settings have also expressed concern about that, and I am sure that the issue is not unknown to the Minister.

Another outstanding local setting, the Montessori group, raised a parallel point with me. It finds it hard to cater for 15 hours of sessions, provided for free, to three and four-year-olds, even though it believes that it is crucial to provide quality full-time child care. Its problem is the combination of, as it were, part-time and full-time children. Will the Minister explain how she thinks a good setting should be able to deal, in a mixed market, with issues about the rate and—to use a horrible word, but I suspect the right one for the problem—sessionality?

Another example comes again from Magdalen Gates pre-school. It told us about the importance of language skills in early years. That is certainly one reason to value good-quality early years provision, because it can help children to develop social skills and vocabulary. Evidence suggests that once an attainment gap opens up, it is incredibly hard to close it in later life. I think all of us Government Members share a passion for helping people to move to where they wish to go in life. By the time they start school, poorer children are already behind and are somewhat trapped. They can be up to a full 18 months behind their richer peers in vocabulary development. That is just not good enough for those of us who believe that life is about where one wants to go, not where one started from.

The Minister confirmed to me last week in the Chamber that there has been a 25% increase in enrolment in higher-quality early years training. Will she explain a bit more about what that entails? How can people in my constituency apply to be part of that as a great career? That is an incredibly important message that we might be able to send out today.

My final example comes from Hellesdon Community pre-school, another outstanding setting in my constituency. This relates to the thorny question of committee-run pre-schools, which is well known to the Minister. Does she have any advice for my constituents in such settings, who would like to encourage more volunteers to be part of the committee, to provide the great-quality child care that we are all looking for?

I will draw my comments to a close, because I want to hear from the Minister on those points. I am grateful for having had the chance to raise some cases from my constituency. I have made a great effort to survey all the child care settings in my constituency, and I am expecting a deluge of more data that I can pass on to the Minister, who I know shares my passion for getting better child care, and more of it, at a price that parents can afford.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) for her detailed analysis of child care in her constituency. I congratulate her on the work she has been doing with parents and nurseries to get under the skin of the issues they face. She has identified a number of issues that the Government are working on to make life easier for both high-quality child care providers and parents.

My hon. Friend was absolutely right to open her speech by talking about the dual significance of child care and early education. First, it is important to ensure that children get the best start in life. We know that, at the moment, children from low-income backgrounds begin school 18 months behind in terms of language and vocabulary skills. It is hard for those young children to catch up during their school career. High-quality early education can make a difference. All the evidence suggests that high-quality teachers who help children to develop things such as sentence structure and vocabulary through songs, stories and nursery rhymes and by using other techniques such as counting bricks can make a difference. They will help to close our educational gap.

Secondly, child care is important to support working parents. In the majority of families across OECD countries, both parents go out to work; it has become an economic necessity. However, we do not have to compromise on quality to get affordability; we can achieve both. That is what the Government are working on.

My hon. Friend asked a question about the programme for two-year-olds in Norfolk. The issue might be about the eligibility that is coming onstream this September: 3,600 children in Norfolk will be eligible for the places available currently. The proportion of children in Norfolk taking up places is a high 92%. I understand that the Family and Childcare Trust survey was conducted last autumn, so those data are less recent. I will write to my hon. Friend to confirm the data and their source so that she can have all the information. It would be useful to obtain Norwich city’s data if we can, but as she knows, they are held by Norfolk county council. We will see what we can do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage) made some interesting points about affordability. I, too, struggled, with the affordability of child care, as I know many parents do. We have seen rising costs. Under the previous Government, child care costs rose by 50% as they piled more and more red tape on providers, but it was all about ticking boxes and not necessarily about getting better outcomes for children.

I am pleased to say that, after 12 years of rising prices, we saw a drop in prices, after taking inflation into account, for the first time in England this year. That is in contrast to Scotland and Wales. If we look at a nursery place for over-twos, English prices did not go up—in fact, they fell in real terms—whereas prices went up by 8% in Scotland and by 13% in Wales. The Government have taken action to make it easier for high-quality providers to expand. Previously, providers had to jump through hoops from both local authorities and Ofsted. Now, we have said that Ofsted is the sole arbiter of quality, and if someone is a good-quality provider, they are able to open new premises on that basis.

We have also got rid of planning restrictions, so nurseries now have the same planning freedoms as schools. They may convert commercial premises into nurseries without having to obtain planning permission. I have spoken to a lot of nursery owners who are pleased about that new freedom, which means that good-quality nursery chains can expand. We are also funding high-quality child minders, so good and outstanding child minders can automatically offer two, three and four-year-old places. Previously, only 1% of places were with child minders, so the change should enable a big increase in the number of such places.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North made some interesting points about Magdalen Gates pre-school, and I was delighted to visit that high-quality nursery. I was struck by the fact that the nursery is on the same site as a school and by what could be done to use the facilities and resources in the school better, working with the local council. One of the things that we are keen to see is teaching schools reach down the age range and collaborate with private and voluntary-sector nurseries. Schools and private nurseries are developing expertise in how to offer flexible sessions to parents and high-quality early years education. In that particular case, there is a strong incentive for better collaboration with the school and the local council to see how the facilities can be used. The Government fund local councils to give capital grants to increase the number of two-year-old places.

We have also made it easier for school nurseries to open from 8 am to 6 pm. At the moment, 25% of places in Norfolk are in school nurseries. The figure is higher across the rest of the country; a third of all places are in school nurseries which, typically are open only from 9 am to 3 pm. However, if they were open from 8 am to 6 pm, that would enable providers to offer the 15 hours in more flexible allocations. Rather than three hours over five days, they could offer five hours over three days, which works much better with a part-time job.

Our feedback to the provider mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North is that providers are able to charge parents for additional hours. They can come up with different packages. For example, I visited an innovative nursery in the north-west that offers a three hours-plus package, where children get three hours three mornings a week, then they get lunch for £1.40 extra, which is affordable for many parents on low incomes, and which means that the child is getting a high-quality lunch of, in this case, Lancashire pasties and homemade pastry, which I tried myself.

There are all kinds of innovative things that providers can do. We have case studies and models that we can send to my hon. Friend and nurseries in her constituency about how to schedule and roster services, and how they can offer parents different packages that suit their lifestyle. The days when every parent was able to drop their child off at nine and pick them up at 12 are pretty much over. That model does not fit with a lot of parents’ lifestyles and we need to make things easier for them.

School-age children—the over-fives—also need child care. There is a very good example in the constituency next door to my hon. Friend’s constituency. Free School Norwich offers a package of care for parents from 8am to 6pm, with an excellent after-school club—the Squirrels club. Again, that is an example of collaboration between the school and the private sector nursery, because the private sector nursery provides the nursery nurses to staff the after-school club as part of their roster. It is all about getting better use of the really excellent buildings and facilities we have, using them more flexibly so that parents can benefit from them, and ensuring that there is high-quality training of staff.

We are also piloting the extension of School Direct to early years teaching, so that high-quality nurseries can train staff, including early years teachers and early years apprentices, as part of their programme. Expert practitioners in nurseries and school nurseries are leading the training of the next generation of staff.

My hon. Friend asked me about early years teachers. It is absolutely true that we have seen a 25% increase in the number of early years teachers being trained this year. We have set higher standards, which seems to have attracted more applicants. Next year, we will introduce the full early years educator qualification, for which students need a C in English and maths, and we are offering a bursary for an apprenticeship in that area worth £3,000. School nurseries and private sector nurseries should be aware that they can hire really high-quality people. Once they have been in the position for three months, those people can receive a bursary, which again will help to train up highly qualified staff.

My hon. Friend asked if there is extra advice for schools that are taking two-year-olds. Again, a pilot programme has been running with an evaluation. There are 49 schools participating, and we are learning a lot of lessons from what schools have told us about how two-year-olds fit in with three and four-year-olds in nurseries, including the best way of organising and staffing such nurseries, and the best way to offer parents flexibility. I am very happy to send her that data, so that she can discuss with local schools and nurseries in her constituency the findings of that programme.

We shall soon introduce in primary legislation a measure under which school nurseries will no longer have to register separately with Ofsted to take two-year-olds. As I have mentioned, the communication and language benefits of teacher-led care are very high, and we want more schools to provide that care. In fact, academies and free schools are able to open nurseries as well as local authority-maintained schools. Where there is the capacity in schools, that is a good opportunity, and as I have said, there is an opportunity to collaborate with local private sector providers too. We do not want a Berlin wall, as it were, between private sector providers and school nurseries. They are both trying to do the same job, which is achieving really good outcomes for children, and they can learn from each other.

I will give my hon. Friend an excellent example of child care that I saw when I was in Warrington last week. The Evelyn Street pre-school takes children from the age of two on a free programme. The parents of some of those children pay for extra hours; some do not. The pre-school also takes three and four-year-olds. It opens from 8am to 6pm, to suit working parents. It is led by a high-quality teacher with an apprentice training up as an assistant, so it really does all the things I have talked about, and it also offers child care at a very affordable price for parents in the north-west. Some of the evidence that we have received shows that the child care it provides is two thirds cheaper than the average market price for child care, so it is possible to have really high-quality teacher-led care with an affordable price tag. That is an important message to send out.

My hon. Friend also discussed the work that the Government have done to extend tax-free child care, which is now up to £2,000 per child. That is a major extension of the scheme. The previous scheme—the childcare voucher scheme—was open to only a fifth of employees. Now, if someone is on a low income, they will be able to access child care through tax credits or universal credit. If someone is on a mid to high income, they will be able to access child care through tax-free child care, whether they are self-employed, working part-time or working full-time; it does not depend on their employer being part of the scheme. That is a much more widely available scheme. It will be easy to use; people can apply for it on the internet and the money is paid directly to child care providers.

My hon. Friend mentioned the issue of funding. We have had a historical issue, similar to the issue with schools, whereby different local authorities have been funded on a different basis. We want to sort that issue out in the longer term; I have made a commitment to do so. One thing that we have done is to ensure that local authorities are passing as much as possible of the money they receive to the front line, because that money will help to pay for high-quality staff, high-quality materials and high-quality facilities in those nurseries. One of the advantages of slimlining the inspection regime and making Ofsted the sole arbiter of quality is that more money can be used by local authorities, which can put it straight through to the front line rather than using it to duplicate the work that Ofsted is doing.

We have just announced the early years pupil premium, which we will soon consult on. It is worth £50 million, and it will go on a per-head basis to the most deprived children aged three and four. If nurseries focus on those two-year-olds who are going up through the system they will receive extra financial support on a per-head basis. That might address some of the funding issues that my hon. Friend raised.

This has been a helpful debate.

Before the Minister concludes, would she comment on the point about volunteers in community settings?

Before the Minister responds, I gently say to her that for her complete speech I have been looking at her back, and that would not necessarily be acceptable to the Speaker or another Chair. The microphone is trying to catch her remarks as well, so it would be helpful if she looked this way.

I apologise, Mr McCrea, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to serve under your chairmanship—

Sorry—Dr McCrea, I am very grateful to serve under your chairmanship and I hope that I have not caused any offence. I am afraid that I got so over-excited by the examples that my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North was giving and by the excellent comments from my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport that I made a terrible error. However, I apologise, and I will address the remainder of my remarks to you, Dr McCrea.

We have had a very useful discussion. Quite often in debates about child care and early education, we can get stuck talking about the high-level numbers. What is really important, however, is what is happening on the ground. It is the quality interaction between well-trained teachers, apprentices, teaching assistants, early years educators and the children that is really important.

What we as a Government want to do is make the structures as simple as possible. Yes, we want good accountability and high-quality Ofsted inspection. One thing that I have done as a Minister is give Ofsted more money to recruit high-quality inspectors to the early years sector. However, we also want to ensure that the professionals who work in this sector have the opportunity to exercise their own professional judgment.

On the subject of volunteers, I completely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North that there are some very interesting models indeed of nursery co-operatives in which parents are used to help support children in the nursery, and encouraging volunteers and volunteer structures is an important part of what nurseries do. Again, the system needs to be as open as possible, to enable people to participate. Yes, we need high-quality training and standards, but we could do more for the voluntary sector, the private sector and maintained schools to enable them to work together to get the best quality outcome for our children.

Sitting suspended.