Amber Rudd is the Member of Parliament for Hastings and Rye. Follow Amber on Twitter.
Since she suggested reforms to childcare earlier this year, the new Minister for Childcare, Elizabeth Truss has been attacked by the left – not least Polly Toynbee in the Guardian on Friday.
Much of the debate has centred around staff-child ratios – in other words, the number of children a childminder or nursery worker can look after at any one time. In her pamphlet, Truss suggested looser ratios, with staff allowed to look after more children than they are at the moment. According to Polly, this amounts to "cut-price baby farming".
Let’s look at the facts. England has some of the most restrictive ratios anywhere in Europe. In France, nursery staff can look after eight 2-year-olds each. In Holland and Ireland, they can look after six 2-year-olds. But in England, they can look after only four 2-year-olds.
The story is similar for childminders. In Ireland and Holland, childminders can look after five children under the age of 5. In France, they can look after four under-5s. In England, they can only look after three.
What do tight ratios mean in practice? For a start, there can be no overlap at all between the children a childminder is looking after. If a childminder is looking after 3 children, they cannot look after a fourth for even a few minutes. So if one parent is late picking up their child and another is early, the early parent must wait until the late parent arrives, because the childminder would risk losing their job for looking after an extra child just for a few minutes.
I know of one couple who are both childminders. Often they will look after 6 children between them, meeting their limit of three each. But if one of them wants to go to the shops to pick up a pint of milk, the ratios mean they can’t leave all 6 children in the house with the other adult. Instead, they have to troop down to the shops with three of the children in tow. This is how overly-restrictive regulations can lead to absurd outcomes. Loosening ratios would not mean it was mandatory for childminders to look after more children. Far from it. Instead, it would allow them to exercise their professional judgment, giving them more options over how they operate.
The consequences of tight ratios go further than inconveniencing childminders. Inevitably, English nurseries have to employ more staff to look after fewer children. Likewise, childminders in England are paid by parents by the hour but are strictly limited on the number of children they can look after. Ultimately, tight ratios mean childcare professionals in England are paid less than they are on the continent, making the profession less attractive and driving down the quality of the workforce.
Of course, there are many excellent and dedicated childcare professionals in this country, but the truth is there aren’t nearly enough. Even Polly admits only 8% of childcare workers here are graduates compared to 60% in other countries. It is not surprising when we are paying them barely more than the minimum wage.
Many on the left have suggested that the UK should seek inspiration from Denmark. Last week, a report from the IPPR said we should follow the Danish rather than the Dutch example. Labour’s Stephen Twigg says we should try to emulate Denmark, while Polly Toynbee points to the Nordic countries for best practice. There is indeed much to recommend the Danish system. Staff are well paid, quality is high and provision is affordable. They also don’t have any national mandatory ratios for nurseries at all, and ratios for childminders are significantly looser than England. The IPPR themselves acknowledge that "countries with looser ratios tend to have much better qualified childcare workforces". This is not a coincidence.
The left’s criticism of the Government’s approach to childcare is deeply confused. They say England should follow the example of European countries in delivering childcare, but don’t want to adopt the looser ratios used in those countries. They talk about creating an "early years profession", but won’t allow childminders even the smallest discretion in how they work. They realise that low pay is a problem, but are implacably opposed to practical measures which would allow them to be paid more.
Parents want to know that they are entrusting their children to the care of people who know what they are doing. We will only get there if we can show people that being a childminder or working in a nursery is an incredibly important and highly-valued profession. It is time we stopped treating childcare workers like the infants they are supposed to be looking after.