Last week, children's minister Elizabeth Truss announced her plan for reforms to the childcare sector, a plan entitled 'More Great Childcare'. Before having any idea about what these reforms might be, I was put off. More great childcare? Did I miss the first lot then? When faced with a situation where Britain has one of the most expensive childcare systems in the developed world, and British mothers have one of the lowest employment rates, tackling the problem under the banner of 'more' seems to undermine the problem right from the start.
Don't get me wrong - as a writer who specialises in education (amongst other things) and as a mother who has two small children in nursery, I think that a lot of the work done for children in the early years is fantastic. I certainly know that my children's own Montessori nursery is providing great childcare for my two (in fact I used them as a 'best practice case study' for an article in Practical Pre-School magazine recently) and I know that early years providers, on the whole, work very hard and are very undervalued. Let's not pretend that the childcare system is not seriously flawed though.
Giving Elizabeth Truss the benefit of the doubt over what seems like an arrogant title, I looked further into the reform. Its aims are admirable: to cut the costs of childcare and to increase the places available. The method, however, is just so unbelievably clueless that I feel almost dizzy with the madness of it.
The minister proposes that if qualifications of nursery staff are raised, ratios can increased. So, if the people working with our children can get a C or above in maths, they will automatically be better able to care for more children at one time. Makes sense, doesn't it (what do you mean, no?)
Firstly, when it comes to qualifications, I don't give a rats ass whether the people looking after my children did well in school. When it comes to the pre-school room then yes, I do expect them to have qualifications, knowledge and teaching skills, but it makes no difference to me with babies or toddlers.
I couldn't care less if my two year old's key worker wrote that she had 'potatoe and brockily' for lunch on her handover sheet - what I do care about is that when my daughter was a bit off colour that day, she sat with her on her knee. She sang songs with her and gave her cuddles. She put her hair clip back in a dozen times and she wiped her little runny nose. She helped her to pour rice from one pot to another with a spoon, because Mouse loves to pour rice from one pot to another with a spoon, and when she handed her over to me at the end of the day, she gave her a kiss and she said goodbye to her AND to her special comforter, by name.
For me, that's what looking after a two year old is all about. Under the new regulations, Mouse's keyworker would be able to look after Mouse on a day like that, and five others. Six children aged two. In the baby section, the ratios would change from one adult to three babies (which is already pushing it, in my opinion) to one adult to four.
I have to wonder if these regulations are being made by people who have ever MET children? What I would like to see, is a live television show where some of the ministers involved in this ridiculous plan attempt to care for (and 'educate' in line with their EYFS curriculum guide) six two year olds or four babies on their own (or four toddlers and two babies, as childminders will now be allowed). I give it ten minutes into the programme before the ministers in question realised that these small people are hard work - that they are demanding, and they are needy. Needy of love, time, attention, focus and care. I don't even believe it's physically possible and, what’s more, I don’t believe that it’s safe – either in an immediate physical safety sense or for the long-term emotional safety of the little people in childcare situations.
If I thought that the new rules would improve the childcare situation, maybe I'd be less sceptical - but I don't. Firstly, the childcare sector is almost overwhelmingly dead-set against the changes with 94 percent of respondents to a survey carried out by the Pre-School Learning Alliance being against the proposed ratio changes. Certainly, in more affluent areas, people will just pay more to get better ratios. The only people who will suffer from the disengagement that these changed ratios will bring about are those who are already disadvantaged. Secondly, the average nursery worker earns £6.60 per hour, and now they are expected to be better qualified. Better qualified staff will lead to higher pay expectations (quite rightly) and so these savings that parents are expected to get just won’t materialise. Even supposing nurseries find themselves in a better position, I highly doubt that this will get passed on to the parents, considering that half of the nurseries in the UK are currently not operating in profit.
I'm a qualified, experienced, educated professional, and I simply would not be able to afford to get a full time job in my field. I left my job as Assistant Editor on a national magazine on a salary of 20k, which is £15, 920.00 after tax. My children's nursery costs £220 per week and I have two children. That equates to around £21, 220 per year. Bit of a deficit there. Even considering that my son is now 4 so receives 15 hours per week free, it still only reduces to an amount that would roughly equal that salary rather than actually exceeding it.
On top of this, despite a great show of flexible-working and parent-protecting legislation, many employers simply aren't actually all that sympathetic to working mothers. Having spent some time working part-time for an employer last year, I spent most of the time being called into meetings to discuss why I had had to stay home on a number of occasions to care for my vomiting children and being asked if there wasn’t someone else who could do this. A few employers are fantastic, but the general picture is of mothers struggling to do the right thing for their children and to be respected as professionals – all so that they can take home the money to pay the nursery that cares for their children while they are at work.
What would be the point in me actually going back to work? The more children you have, the more of an issue it becomes.
I am very lucky that I am now a freelancer: I get to do the work I love around my children, so they are in nursery some of the time, with family some of the time and I then spend a great deal of my evenings and weekends working as well which is pretty tiring but it's how I hold it all together. This is the only way that I can see for me to actually have a career right now. Many, many people are not this fortunate.
Until something is done about this absolutely enormous problem, the situation will not improve. Messing about with childcare ratios, demanding higher educational qualifications and devaluaing the job that nursery workers do is counter productive at best, and doesn't even touch on the bigger issues.