How many small children do you think you could look after? Three? Four? Maybe not even one without someone else on hand? It’s a question Liz Truss says she is asked regularly, although as she points out, no one asks her Department of Health colleagues whether they could perform keyhole surgery.
That’s the problem with the current debate around childcare: it’s too emotional. Tired parents, nerves frayed from watching their brood run riot throughout the house ask themselves ‘how could anyone look after a group of small children all day?’ Feeling overtakes fact, which makes reasoned discussion impossible.
Take this comment by Justine Roberts, Mumsnet Founder and CEO:
‘There’s a lot of concern among Mumsnet users about the Government’s plans to relax childcare ratios. Four babies under the age of one seems like a lot [my emphasis] for even the most experienced childcare worker to manage.’
Trawling the forums on Mumsnet it’s not long before you hear tales of woe from this group: wives whose salary covers the childcare costs with just a few pounds left over at the end of the month. They do it to keep their careers ticking over, whilst the husband’s salary keeps the household running. Because the salary only just covers the childcare costs, they feel poor.
Yet little thought is spared for those below them: single parents who have no husband’s salary to fall back on, or low waged earners. Amongst the latter group, uptake of formal childcare is low compared with other European nations, at just 27 per cent. These parents are effectively being priced out of the job market.
But it’s the former group, not the latter, that Nick Clegg knows he must hold on to in the polls. And that’s why he’s keen to see an end to the discussion of relaxing ratios. What is being spun as ‘the caring Lib Dems – always on your side’ is no more than selfish self-interest; political game playing of the worst order. The people who will lose out are not his friends and voters in Islington and other leafy London districts, but parents up and down the country who are being denied a career at all.
Thanks to regulation such as the much discussed child/carer ratios, the cost of childcare in the UK rose steadily over the last decade. We now pay an average of £11,000 a year per child in nursery fees. This makes childcare the most expensive bill in many households after the mortgage, and for others, simply unaffordable. Only 27 per cent of low waged families use any sort of formal childcare.
Yet there is no hard evidence that relaxing those ratios would have a negative effect on the quality of childcare offered. Whereas in England nursery staff may look after no more than four two-year-olds, in France they can be responsible for eight — and there are no limits in Denmark, Germany or Sweden. Yet the quality of childcare in these countries is as good as, if not better than what’s on offer here, and the carers themselves are better paid and more respected.
We must stop thinking of childcare as something that anyone can do, and instead see it as a profession. We must trust trained and qualified child minders to use their discretion over how many children they take on. And we as a nation must get away from the idea that regulation equates to safety — it does not. We at Childcare for All are campaigning for just that, as only then will parents have access to quality childcare at a price that’s affordable for all.
Donna Edmunds is director of the Childcare for All campaign