The cost and quality of childcare is an issue
which touches millions of parents and families across the country. All parents
want the best care for their children, and they also want it to come at a
reasonable price. Yet somehow, as important an issue as it is, we have managed
to stick with a system that isn’t working for anyone.
The costs to families are huge. They face the
second highest childcare costs in the OECD – at 26.6 per cent of family income
it is more than double the OECD average of 11.8 per cent. When it takes an
average of four months full time work for a mother to cover the cost of her
child’s care, it is hardly surprising that many are being kept at home because
they can’t afford to go out and work. Department for Education (DfE) data shows
that half of all stay at home mothers want to get back to work, but the sky
high costs of childcare provision are holding them back. Worryingly, the problem
is getting even worse. Figures from the Daycare Trust show childcare costs are
increasing by six per cent a year, well above the rise in wages.
High costs aren’t for lack of Government
funding. In spite of the large costs to parents, the Government is still
spending twice the OECD average on child care. These also aren’t a reflection of
a much higher quality of care in the UK. While costs are high, wages for carers
are low, which is dragging down quality. On average a childcare worker in
England is paid just £13,300, and a supervisor £16,850, compared to £20,000 and
£30,000 respectively in both Germany and Denmark.
It is of course no coincidence that the
crippling cost comes alongside the other thing which makes our childcare system
an exception in the world: the hugely restrictive ratios of staff to children
we impose. While in England nurseries must have one member of staff for every
four two year olds in the Netherlands and Ireland the ratio is one to six; in
France is one to eight; and in Denmark, Germany and Sweden there is no national
limit at all.
More relaxed ratios allow for lower cost, and
also higher quality. In the Écoles Maternelles of France, the higher wages their
less restrictive ratios allow for also mean that staff are more qualified, with
a requirement that 40 per cent must hold a diploma. Yet childcare accounts for
just 10.6% of family incomes: less than the OECD average and less than half the
level in the UK.
Proposals in the Children and Families Bill to
relax the ratios to one member of staff for every six children for those high
quality childcare providers with highly qualified staff have of course had to
be abandoned after Nick Clegg blocked them late in the legislative process.
This is regrettable. Research from the DfE has found that increasing the
maximum allowed ratio from four staff per child to six per child could have
reduced the cost to families by up to 28 per cent if it had been fully adopted.
This would have been a huge boost for working families, much needed as costs
rise faster than wages.
It would have also given more women the choice
to return to work if they wanted to. According to the OECD the 73.6 per cent
and 78.5 per cent of mothers in France and the Netherlands respectively are
employed, compared to 67.1 per cent in the UK.
Changes allowing more flexibility with childcare
ratios never meant that all childcare providers would be forced to change their
ratios, but only that the best providers would be given the freedom and
flexibility to enhance their provision at the same time as bringing down costs.
When we have a system which is putting a crippling burden on families and
Government, which denies mothers the choice to go back to work if they want to,
and which fails to deliver the highest standard of care for our children in
their early years, clearly, we need reform.