Elizabeth Truss is Member of Parliament for South West Norfolk. Follow Liz on Twitter.
The British Government spends more on childcare for the under threes than the Netherlands, Germany, France or Canada. In fact the only countries that spend more are the Nordics. British parents contribute a higher proportion of income than anywhere in the world bar Switzerland. With some of the highest public and private spending, you would expect that Britain would be providing exceptional childcare. Yet Cathy Nutbrown’s worrying report suggests that we are not delivering quality for all the money being invested. Staff are not well paid and coverage is patchy. Some of this is down to poor structures and incentives. It is also down to flexibility. Many other Northern European countries are prepared to pay childcare workers more, have more training and supervision and allow them to look after more children.
Take the Netherlands for example. They have a system of licensed "host-parent agencies" that train and monitor childminders. These agencies act as a gateway for parents, Government funding bodies and the regulator. They offer a convenient one-stop shop for childminders, who can focus their efforts on looking after children. One-step removed from the Government regulator the agency provides support, legal cover and insurance. They receive a monthly amount from the fees paid by the parent which gives them a strong incentive to recruit more high quality host-parents.
Under the English system, after initial training with the Local Authority is completed, Ofsted only visit childminders once every three years. This is expensive costing Ofsted nearly £400 per year per childminder. Childminders are expected to follow the Early Years Framework, fill in extensive paperwork and be a member of a Childminding Network, which vary considerably from area to area. In contrast, Dutch agencies visit childminders at least every six months and provide sixteen hours of training per year. The agencies have websites outlining details about the childminders and the qualifications and training they have completed. The information provided is much richer than the UK equivalent, childminders on the Ofsted website are known by a number not a name. The result of the training, supervision and transparency is that parents rate the care by Dutch host-parents very highly. A recent study by Dutch economics group SEO rated host parents at 8.6 out of ten, higher than nurseries in every category including quality, affordability and flexibility.
And yet this quality comes at an affordable price. Over the past five years costs have been stable or falling, compared to the high childcare cost inflation in Britain. Parents in the Netherlands pay only ten per cent of their income on childcare compared to a staggering 27 per cent for UK parents. How are agencies able to provide all of these services, guarantee quality and provide affordable care?
One reason is that with the improved supervision and training, the staff to child ratios are more flexible. Dutch host-parents are able to look after five children under five. Similar ratios apply in Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. There are commonsense provisions for emergencies but the supervision of this is left to the agencies to give the necessary flexibility. This means that compared to UK childminders, the income a childminder can earn with parents paying the same fees is as much as 40 per cent higher. UK childminders have a ratio of only three under 5s per adult. As this includes the childminders own children and can apply at any time of day (for example a half-hour crossover that takes the childminder over the limit is not allowed) this is restrictive. Only one child under one is allowed, ruling out twins unless permission is applied for from Ofsted.
Arguably the greatest cost squeeze is for full day care for the under 5s. We all have friends and relatives cobbling together solutions with grandparents and playgroups due to the apparent impossibility of finding quality and affordability. Homecare should be a great option. It is particularly suitable for the under 3s with the recent EPPE study identifying close attachment with the carer and a homely environment as crucial for the child. Particularly with the new funding for 2 year olds that the Government is offering, ensuring there is sufficient supply of this high quality home care is vital.
Here we can learn a further lesson from the Netherlands. In Britain the numbers of childminders has halved over the past decade, coinciding with huge inflation and a reduction in flexibility. With limited rewards and increasing hoops to jump through the profession simply isn’t that attractive for new entrants.
In 2005 the Dutch Government decided to put their childcare credits (the equivalent of our tax credits, nursery funding and employer vouchers) through host parent agencies as well as nurseries. Take-up shot up over the next 3 years. It was slightly reined in in 2011 when regulations meant that fewer grandparents qualified. But now in 2012 the Netherlands has twice the childminders per capita than Britain does at a much more affordable cost.
If we followed similar system in Britain, we could enable lots of parents who look after their own children to become quality childminders. The experience in the Netherlands shows that capacity can be increased quickly. There are many capable people out there who are already looking after their own children or perhaps used to work in childcare, who provided with a simple and well supported route could become host parents or childminders. There are also organisations like the National Childminding Association, Childminding Networks, Local Authorities and nanny agencies who could fulfil the roles that agencies do in the Dutch system.
Such a reform would also allow a simplification of the different funding streams which are confusing for parents and providers. There would be a clear vehicle that could deal with funding for childminders, rather than the hotpotch at present. Moving from a system that is based around numbers and ticks in boxes to one that has regular training and quality checks will encourage more to want to become childcarers and improve quality. This would be good for both the profession and the children in their care.