PM’s adviser says minister’s news of reforms comes ‘ahead of herself’ as parents reject plan to relax ratio of minders to babies
Reforms designed to make childcare less expensive are being delayed by arguments that spilled out in public on Tuesday over how much the government can afford to extend help to middle-class families.
Changes that would allow childminders and nurseries to increase the number of babies and young children in their care if they improve qualifications, and toughen up inspections were confirmed by the early years minister, Elizabeth Truss.
However, there was confusion over a linked announcement about funding to help families pay for childcare, which has now been delayed and which previous reports suggested would replace the current mixture of incentives with a universal tax-break for parents with children aged under five.
Early on Tuesday Truss told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that the delayed announcement was “the big thing” and “is coming”, and had support across the coalition government. “We’re agreed, the Liberal Democrats are agreed,” said Truss. “All families who go into work, we want to help with their childcare costs – we’re absolutely clear about that.”
However, hours later another Tory MP, Claire Perry, who is close to the chancellor, George Osborne, and advises the prime minister on childhood issues, said that although there “is something coming” there were still “furious negotiations”.
“I think she [Truss] perhaps got a little bit ahead of herself with the announcement – there is something coming,” Perry told Radio 4’s The World At One. “There are basically furious negotiations going on saying, ‘We’d like to commit more money to doing this, but how much is available and what’s the best way to spend it?'”
Lib Dem and Treasury sources played down reports that the coalition was split over how far to extend financial support for childcare, or that the Treasury was blocking reforms in a row over how they would be afforded. An announcement is expected in spring.
The sources stressed that there were continuing policy debates, for example over whether it was best to use tax breaks or subsidies to help families with children, but that most of the discussion was about “nuts and bolts” details of how the changes would be made.
Lib Dems pointed to party leader Nick Clegg’s comments in the latest issue of The House magazine, in which he appeared to row back from a previous claim that support must be “targeted”, saying instead: “I’m unambiguously in favour, and have been an arch-proponent of, giving more help to the British middle classes.”
Options suggested by the emerging compromise include extending financial support to all but the highest rate tax payers, and other coalition policies such as 15 hours free childcare for two-year-olds from the poorest families will be highlighted.
Under the plans published by Truss for consultation, nurseries may increase the number of children cared for by each worker from three to four babies under one, or from four to six two-year-olds, and childminders will in future be able to look after up to four children under five, including two babies under one.
Childcarers will have to have at least grade C level GCSEs in English and Maths, and a new graduate early years learning qualification will be introduced. Ofsted will also increase inspections for pre-school nurseries and childminders. And childminders will be able to join agencies that would pool administration, such as registration and chasing payments, and allow them to share care when one or more minder was unable to work, for example due to illness.
The attempt to increase the quality of childcare was widely welcomed, but there is opposition from childcare organisations, unions, and parenting forums to the proposed change to the adult-to-child ratios. A Mumsnet poll found only 5% of members supported the changes, and Netmums reported 20% support.
Neil Leitch, the chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: “We are absolutely appalled by this fixation to alter ratios, despite the fact that those working in the sector are universally opposed to the proposal.”
Truss stressed that changes to ratios would be voluntary and linked to better qualifications, and were in line with other European countries where childcare was considered better quality and cheaper. For these reasons they should not be used by nurseries to simply cut costs, because better qualified staff could command higher wages, and should not create a two-tier system where middle-class parents paid more for carers minding fewer children.
“One of the things I’m trying to do is change parental perceptions: parents should be taking note of the qualifications as well as the ratios,” Truss told the Guardian. “Of course ratios are important, but there are other focuses.”
The National Child Minders Association, said it was also worried about childminding agencies, which could dilute inspection of individual carers in their homes.
“Parents rely on Ofsted inspection of individual childminders to reassure them their child will be safe and receive a quality experience in that individual’s care,” said Liz Bayram, the association’s joint chief executive.