Children’s commissioner demands ambition, not ‘tinkering’, in childcare reform | Childcare
The children’s commissioner for England has poured cold water on Liz Truss’s proposal to scrap regulations governing child-to-staff ratios in nurseries, describing it as tinkering around the edges and calling instead for ambitious and transformative reform of the childcare sector.
In an interview with the Guardian, Dame Rachel de Souza said children’s safety and wellbeing must be “paramount” in any plans to reform childcare and she said she thought it was “really depressing” if the current conversation about childcare focused purely on ratios.
The former headteacher, whose work as children’s commissioner has highlighted the cost of living crisis affecting families across the country, also said she thought benefits should be uprated in line with inflation – an issue the chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng, will address in his fiscal plan to be published at the end of this month.
Concerns have been mounting about the state of the childcare sector in England, with parents facing spiralling costs, nurseries complaining of underfunding and the number of places available for preschool children going down.
The government has said it is exploring a range of options to make childcare more affordable and easier to access to help boost economic growth through getting people back to work. One proposal is to relax childcare ratios from one adult to four two-year-olds, to allow one adult to care for five children – a move which has been overwhelmingly opposed by everyone involved in the sector on safety grounds.
Ministers are also reported to be considering getting rid of the regulatory requirement on ratios altogether, leaving it up to childcare settings to decide how many staff they need to care for their children. De Souza said she had looked at the figures and although it might save some money, she dismissed it as “tinkering financially”.
“I do think it’s really depressing if the conversation we have about childcare is about ratios – not about a vision for transforming childcare. This is a moment to actually really create that vision,” she said.
“What we’re hearing from government is they want a growth plan, and for that growth plan to work, they need people to be in the workforce and I would imagine there’s an interest in childcare because they need mums and dads to be working. So this is a great moment to look at what fantastic childcare actually is.”
Asked about another proposal under discussion to give a flexible childcare budget direct to parents in place of a paid-for space in nursery, De Souza agreed the current system was “ungainly” and funding streams were complicated for parents.
But she added: “I’m not saying giving all the money up front is the answer. What I’m saying is let’s do the thinking to make this system work for everybody, particularly the most vulnerable children.”
On Wednesday the children’s commissioner published her own report, Vision for Childcare, which included new research highlighting the varied uptake of the government’s current offer of 15 hours’ free childcare a week for all three and four-year-olds.
In 2019, overall uptake was 93%, but significantly lower for certain groups, including Chinese (71%), Irish traveller (66%), Gypsy/Roma children (62%), children with English as an additional language (85%), children in London (90%) and those with profound learning difficulties (83%).
An audit of 60 local authorities also found it was difficult to access information on childcare providers in more than a quarter (27%) of local authorities, while for 60% of local authorities the childcare directory didn’t contain all the information recommended in statutory guidance.
The report said schools should be at the heart of “a new model for early education and childcare”. With school rolls falling and the number of pupils in state primaries set to fall by a fifth over the next decade, De Souza said spare capacity in schools should be used to provide more early years provision.
The report also called for childminders to be placed “front and centre” of the new childcare offer, with an agency for childminders in every local area to provide “a bespoke brokerage service for parents” to meet individual needs. De Souza also suggested removing Ofsted from regulation of childminders, suggesting it might be better done by a local authority.
“For the past decade within government there has been a relentless focus on driving up school standards,” the report said. “Now this focus must be extended to the early years.
“Every parent and carer should have confidence that the early education they choose for their child will be of the highest quality. But we also need a flexible childcare offer that wraps around education, and that works for the realities of family life.”
Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, said: “Over recent days, we have seen a whole range of seemingly random, ill-thought-out and in many cases completely unworkable proposals for early years reform from government.
“As such, we share the children’s commissioner’s view that what both the sector and families need is a long-term, ambitious vision for childcare and early education in this country, and not more tinkering around the edges.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We will carefully consider the commissioner’s recommendations as we explore a wide range of options to make childcare more accessible and affordable for parents.”