Elizabeth Truss is an Under-Secretary at the Department of Education and the MP for South West Norfolk. Follow Liz on Twitter.
Over Christmas on the Today programme, Warren Buffet, the stock market aficionado, claimed that working mothers would help rescue the US economy. He said: “Fifty per cent of the talent in the country, we’ve pushed off in the corner for almost 200 years. Now that we’re starting to use 100 per cent of our talent, it makes me very optimistic. Dual-earner families are now the norm in leading developed countries, according to the OECD. Changing technology, increases in returns to skills and the much greater education of women has meant that mothers are now an integral part of a country’s economic success.
Other countries are learning these lessons. Ten years ago, the German Government decided it could no longer afford the economic cost of half-day schools, as it prevented parents working a full day. Now children in Berlin are entitled to be cared for at their primary school until 6pm for a small parental contribution. Just before Christmas Tony Abbott, the leader of the Australian Liberal Party, told me that there is a similar issue in Australia, where childcare costs are almost as astronomic as they are in Britain.
Labour’s unsustainable boom masked the rising cost of childcare and the impact it was having on the ability of parents to go out to work. British parents pay some of the highest childcare costs in the world, shelling out 27% of their income. A recent study by the Resolution Foundation showed that a family of two earners taking home £44,000 could end up being just £4,000 better off than a single parent family earning £24,000 because of the costs of childcare. Yet the Government spends double the OECD average on the early years, a figure of around £5bn a year. During the 2000s, the UK was overtaken by countries like the Netherlands, Germany and France in terms of the proportion of mothers in work. This is a reversal from the position in the 1980s and 1990s when Britain had a higher proportion of working mothers than those countries.
Many parents do want to stay at home with their children in the important early years. However supporting this choice should not prevent us also helping those parents who would go out to work if they could find affordable, reliable, quality childcare – 50% of stay-at-home mothers, according to a recent DfE survey. In recent years parental choice and flexibility has declined. For example, there are now almost half the number of childminders as there were 20 years ago.
There is clearly something wrong with a system where the costs both to government and to parents are high, yet the people employed to look after and educate children are poorly paid. Many childcare businesses are struggling to stay afloat and vacancy rates are increasing, pointing to an overall structural problem. The IPPR recently described the childcare system as “expensive”, “inefficient” and “confusing”. Even Labour’s former children’s minister Beverly Hughes admits that they got it wrong in how they funded childcare.
These issues are resolvable. But it is not just about money: we need to reform the way childcare is organised and provided. There are strong examples over the channel about what good systems look like that provide parents with flexibility and affordability and give children excellent quality care.
The French use Écoles Maternelles that offer traditional nursery style teaching by teachers in large groups of 3 and 4 year olds. They are so well regarded that the French Government is now extending the opportunity to attend these schools to disadvantaged two year olds. The French crèches for the under-3s are also in much demand. They operate with fewer staff who are better qualified and better paid than their English equivalents. In France, 40% of staff have to hold a diploma, typically awarded following a year of study after the age of 18, and they are paid over £16,000. Each staff member is responsible for up to eight toddlers. The figure in Ireland and Holland is up to six children. In England staff are typically paid £13,000 and can be responsible for no more than four toddlers. The French also have crèches maternelles, which are organisations providing training, quality assurance, insurance and child placement for home-based childminders, in exchange for a cut of their fees. The Dutch have agencies which operate a similar basis. Both countries have proportionately more childminders than England, which is very helpful for parents who prefer homecare or need the flexibility it provides.
In England, we need to move to a simpler, clearer system that prioritises quality and safety over excessive bureaucracy. We also need to think about the balance between the number and quality of staff in our system. It is no coincidence that we have the most restrictive adult-child ratios for young children of comparable European countries as well as the lowest staff salaries. Our ratios put a cap on the salaries staff can be paid because of onerous requirements on numbers. If staff are being paid barely more than minimum wage, nurseries struggle to retain and recruit high quality people. In her recent report Cathy Nutbrown pointed out that some childcare workers do not have a C at GCSE in English and maths. Yet we expect them to help our young children learn to speak and do their first sums.