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Children: Care

Volume 744: debated on Wednesday 13 March 2013

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they have consulted early years practitioners on their plans to increase the maximum ratio of carers to babies and toddlers under two years old to 4:1, and carers to two year-olds to 6:1, where high-quality carers are available.

My Lords, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, and officials at the Department for Education, have consulted a wide range of interested parties on our proposals through a series of meetings and workshops. Officials have also visited a number of early-years providers to discuss the proposals. The Government launched a public consultation on 29 January, seeking views on these proposals from parents, early-years practitioners and others.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, and for the Government’s consultation on this implementation. However, is the Minister aware of the widespread concern among parents, practitioners and experts, and among organisations such as the Pre-School Learning Alliance, that the Government are even considering reducing the ratio of carers to babies and carers to pre-schoolers? Will the Minister now consult with his colleagues and consider pausing, taking off the table the proposal to reduce ratios, and will he take the advice of those in the sector on how to improve quality and affordability of childcare?

My Lords, our consultation on adult/child ratios will continue until 25 March. We should not pre-empt its outcome. The changes that we have proposed to the ratios are not obligatory. Providers will be under no obligation to change the way in which they operate. Our proposals are about giving freedom to high-quality providers to use their professional judgment to decide for themselves how to deploy their staff to best meet the needs of the children for whom they care.

My Lords, from September, 20% of two year-olds—those from the poorest backgrounds—will become eligible for free early-years education for the first time, which will be so important for their brain development. How will the Government make sure that there are enough new, high-quality nursery places to take those extra children, and enough early-years workers, who will be responsible for their emotional, social and language development as well as their safety?

We are doing a great deal of work with local authorities and other providers to ensure that these spaces are available. The department is allocating funding to local authorities at an average hourly rate of £5.09 for statutory two year-old places. This is a competitive rate that will encourage providers to deliver the places. We know that private and voluntary-sector providers and childminders are already delivering more places for two year-olds, paid for by local authorities. The proposals set out in More Great Childcare will encourage investment in better-qualified staff and in their training, so that more two year-olds can be cared for by professionals who are well equipped to help them develop, learn and prepare for school.

My Lords, will the Minister reassure me that he will correct the inadvertent carelessness here? Taken literally, the Question states that the Government want four carers for each toddler under two and six carers for each toddler over two.

My Lords, will this cause the usual problem of exacerbating the difficulties of those who cannot afford better rates by providing minimal care for second-class citizens whose children will be cared for at this level, while intense, high-quality care will be reserved for those who can pay better rates and employ more people?

The noble Baroness raises a good point. This is something that we will consider carefully in the consultation. It is not our intention, which is to provide higher-quality care by more highly qualified staff. All the evidence is that children from deprived backgrounds in particular, who have a deficit of structure and language in their home lives, need higher-quality staff to care for them.

My Lords, the Government’s proposals will allow childminders, for example, to look after six babies at any one time: two aged six months and another four aged 12 months. Does the Minister think that it is possible for one childminder singlehandedly to provide safe, good-quality care for such a group of babies? If so, what evidence have the Government examined to support this, and to form their view that this will not be detrimental to the development of those children?

As I said, the evidence is clear that high-quality childminders are what we need. The ratios that we propose compare favourably with those of other countries that we have visited. We will take these matters into account in the consultation.

Does the Minister agree that it is quite unrealistic to expect women to take half the seats in boardrooms and half the top jobs if there is no affordable childcare? Does he agree that, while one may quibble about changes in ratios, there is also too much pressure on women these days to stay at home and be perfect mothers? What steps will the Government take to make sure that, as in other European countries, there is ample affordable childcare to allow women who want to go to work to fulfil their potential?

We are taking steps with our two year-old offer. I agree with the noble Baroness, and Polly Toynbee herself points out that British mothers have one of the lowest employment rates in the OECD because we have the third most expensive childcare, often of mediocre quality. We believe that our proposals will go some way to solving this problem.

My Lords, does the Minister remember, or has he read, the report from the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, on children with special needs, many of whom are concentrated in less advantaged backgrounds? Would he agree with me that those people providing childcare, whether they are carers at home or in provided accommodation, ought to be able to devote time to individual children? I am sure that the noble Lord would not be quite so sanguine had he done the job of bringing up very small children, not even family members, in difficult circumstances.

I have not read the report to which the noble Baroness refers, but I shall now do so, and I thank her for pointing it out to me. I go back to the point about quality. The EYFS is an inclusive framework for all children, which specifically requires that providers implement policies and procedures that promote equality of opportunity for all children, including those with SEN disabilities. Since 2012, the EYFS has included a new progress check for all two year-olds to identify early their specific needs.