There has been a lot of ideas swirling around the Conservative party conference this week about childcare, but none of them involve significant investment.
All sorts of ideas about childcare have been floated at the Conservative Party conference this week. None of them seem to involve much investment in the sector. There are reports that childminders might not have to register with Ofsted, that schools might open until 4pm, that school and GP provision might be linked to a community’s acceptance of fracking, that childminder agencies are the answer to lack of funding of childcare…We already know that the Government is looking to alter the ratios between childcare staff and children, meaning one staff member can look after more children.
Many of these seem at the very least questionable. Teachers who are already overstretched and seeing school budgets cut are not going to take kindly to being asked to work more hours and keeping schools open until 4pm does little to help parents or to address the mounting problems with wraparound care, for instance.
Now we hear that Jonathan Gullis, the new minister for school standards, has suggested that increasing teachers’ salaries can’t be the answer to every question. Is it the answer to any question from this Government, one asks. Instead, it looks very much like the tax cuts will be paid for by more cuts to the public sector and possibly to Universal Credit. Will suggestions of schools opening later involve teachers working extra with no additional pay? What difference does an extra half hour or hour make to parents in the absence of support for wraparound care?
Gullis is also said to be in talks with unions about making teaching contracts more flexible – it’s about time. He also said he was looking at whether the Government could offer additional hours of free childcare to teachers and social workers. The problem is the current free hours are not sufficiently funded so offering more hours to teachers and social workers will mean more pain for childcare providers, several of whom have been forced to close due to financial difficulties. They could, of course, pass that pain on to parents…
Parents are worried about the ratios issue, an idea championed by Truss back in the early 2010s when she was parliamentary under-secretary of state for childcare and education. They know that looking after more children will reduce the quality of care and are concerned about their children’s safety. Meanwhile, there is the childminder agency option with the Government likely to announce plans to grow the number. Childminder agencies came in in 2014 and Liz Truss played a part in introducing them. Yet since then the number of childminders has been dropping faster than all other forms of childcare. There are currently just seven childminder agencies in England, mostly based in the south east. While it seems a good idea to have an agency that can support childminders with all the paperwork they have to battle through – which is one of the many reasons they are dropping out – are they going to provide a national solution to the problem of affordable, quality childcare? While many find Ofsted inspections difficult, is opting out altogether the answer? Does there need to be some sense of quality control?
PACEY, one of the main bodies for childcare workers, says focusing on attracting more people into childminding does little to address the ongoing problems with retention. It says it has put forward many proposals that would make ‘a real difference in the sector’, such as reversing the rule that prevents childminders providing relatives with funded entitlements and reversing “the chronic underfunding of the sector that stops childminders from earning a decent wage”.
When I’ve spoken to some of the organisations that provide childminders, including childminder agencies, the main issue that comes up again and again is investment in childcare. They know that government investment and recognition of how important childcare is to the economy are vital. Government is the only organisation that can ensure childcare support is available nationally for everyone who needs it. That is its job. It’s no good simply shirking that responsibility and leaving it to the private sector.
One of the issues that comes up again and again in talks with childcare providers is how to reach the less wealthy parts of the country which tend to be the ones suffering most from nursery closures. Even those childminder agencies outside London tend to be based in wealthier areas such as Rutland. Some who have expanded outside the south east have done so chasing parents who have moved out of the capital as a result of being able to work more remotely.
How do we make childcare work for everyone? Many parents have already opted out because of the expense and lack of availability of the childcare they need, but that often limits the kind of work and hours they can do. The Government’s answer seems to be benefits sanctions if they can’t do more hours or earn more money rather than addressing the care issue.
Meanwhile, we hear that Jacob Rees-Mogg has been telling the Tory conference that the Government should provide tax incentives for people to return to the office. He says that home workers get tax incentives – the tax rebate is six pounds a week, but you can now only claim if you have to work from home, not if you simply chose to . Rees-Mogg seems wedded to the idea that working in the office means instant productivity increases when the figures simply don’t stack up. Other countries are incentivising people working from home more in a bid to redistribute wealth to more rural areas and smaller towns. Rees-Mogg seems incapable of understanding that the world is changing.
We need real solutions to real problems, not tinkering at the edges or throwbacks to the past. The private sector can only do so much – and many employers are doing a lot. What is needed for growth is investment in the basics of economic infrastructure, which includes care.