As a journalist of some 16 years now I’ve had a wide variety of press releases pass my way. Some are good, some are bad, some a just a little bit boring. But occasionally us hacks get a press release that quite frankly insults our intelligence. Step forward the Department for Education with news of children’s minister Elizabeth Truss’s policy initiative to improve childcare, writes Joe Lepper.
Its slogan More Great Childcare already makes me suspicious. As well as sounding like something Armando Iannucci and the Thick of It team would have come up with, it also proudly adorns a press release that spends most of its time telling us why childcare in this country is far from great.
The press release says: “The current system doesn’t work. We have a poorly paid and poorly qualified Early Years workforce with many not having a grade C in GCSE English and Maths.”
Well, that doesn’t sound that great. In fact that sounds pretty bad and not something I or any other parents would want more of.
So what is the solution to making childcare even more great than it is? Proper, universal free childcare? A guaranteed living wage for nursery staff? Diverting public spending from free schools into the nursery sector?
It’s none of the above. Truss’s great plan is to relax staff to child ratios so that less staff can work with more children.
Of course this is buried a little in the release, over plans to introduce minimum entry standards for workers and ensure schools offering childcare only need to register once with inspectorate Ofsted. But the part that has quite rightly attracted attention is the ratios; as large swathes of parents, the press and the sector conclude that cutting staff numbers raises a variety of safety and quality concerns.
“We fully support the Government’s commitment to improve the quality of childcare by reforming early years qualifications and raising the status of the profession. However, there is a risk that emphasis on regulatory ratios is distracting attention from the urgent need to tackle high childcare costs. The evidence is that changes to ratios would not in practice significantly reduce costs to parents but might have a negative effect on the quality of care children receive.
The National Childminding Association is concerned about a lack a support system in place to ensure childminders looking after more children can make “the quality judgements needed to ensure each child in their care still receives a high quality experience.”
Nursery World also carries the headline Sector Overwhelming Opposes Ratio Changes, with further criticism from the National Day Nurseries Association and Pre School Learning Alliance among others.
Parents hate the idea too. A Mumsnet poll found only 5% of members supported the changes, and Netmums reported 20% support.
In PR and stakeholder relations terms it’s a disaster and smacks of that other embarrassing policy mess from the government – the Health and Social Care Reform Act, which had to be halted half way through its progress in parliament because everybody hated it and the government had forgotten to properly consult anyone.
There is a consultation around the ratios which can be found here and closes on March 25. Whether the government listens to the responses remains to be seen.
The press release also fails to effectively address the giant white nappy in the room, that childcare cannot be looked at in isolation. It needs to be improved as part of a wider set of policies surrounding employment opportunities for parents. For the bulk of parents childcare is and will remain unaffordable for the forseeable future, in spite of separate measures announced last year to offer a handful of free hours each week to the most deprived families.
So will Truss’s idea actually make childcare more affordable for parents? The Guardian gave an excellent account this week of why Truss’s more great plan is not up to the job.
Using OECD figures it shows that the UK’s child care costs among to 43% of average incomes in the UK, but in France that is just 14.8% and in Germany that’s is 9.1%.
Clearly our counterparts on the continent have a better balanced funding system that means parents aren’t financially crippled by sending their child to nursery, something Truss is either ignoring or doesn’t know how to effectively solve.
As the Guardian concludes: “There is one clear conclusion: staff ratios alone come nowhere near explaining the UK’s childcare costs – and so, on their own, are unlikely to make a substantive difference to what parents pay.”
Anand Shukla, chief executive of the Family Parenting Institute and Daycare Trust, also agrees that ratios will not tackle the real cost issues facing parents.
He says: “There is a risk that emphasis on regulatory ratios is distracting attention from the urgent need to tackle high childcare costs. The evidence is that changes to ratios would not in practice significantly reduce costs to parents but might have a negative effect on the quality of care children receive.”
The lack of thought to this policy and in sending out a press release based on the Orwellian double speak of something terrible needing to become ‘more great’ beggars belief. Why on earth did the senior DfE communication team and Truss think they could get away with this announcement? It’s been a particular disaster for Truss who now has a long way to prove she is a ‘more great’ minister.