Nurseries should give children the chance to learn, and women the choice to work if they want to
Nothing less than the very best will do for our children. Seeing France’s écoles maternelles or visiting the superb nursery run by Durand Academy in south London is an education in just how wonderful childcare can be. The best lets children grow socially and physically, gets them ready for school and lets women – because it is usually women who face this choice – rejoin the workforce.
Everyone agrees what the problems are with the system as it stands: variable provision throughout the country; nurseries struggling with costs; and inadequate qualifications for workers. These issues are precisely those we are determined to take action on. Yet many people in this debate seem reluctant to give providers the flexibility they need to actually do something about the huge flaws in the system.
Polly Toynbee, today challenged me to prove I could work in childcare myself. I’m afraid that betrays an inability to appreciate that childcare workers are professionals. It is high time we stopped thinking childcare is something that anyone could do.
Those European countries whose childcare is widely admired put greater trust in highly qualified staff. In England nursery staff are not allowed to look after more than four two-year-olds, but in France they can look after eight. Toynbee has sung the praises of the national level of Sweden and Denmark, yet those countries impose no ratios of nursery staff to children at all.
We propose to allow nursery workers to look after six two-year-olds and four, instead of three, ones or under – and only when staff have higher quality qualifications, so we can drive up quality. We are not proposing to change the ratios for three- and four-year-olds but we do want to see more teacher-led classes for children about to go to school. Our plans are in line with what I have seen working in other countries. They are motivated entirely by the drive to do what is best for children. Childminders would also be given greater freedom, and for the same reason.
Simply put, quality matters more than quantity. We will not force professionals to take more children than they want to, but it is self-defeating for this country to put a ceiling on pay by having the toughest restrictions in Europe. Where providers face a choice between hiring more staff or hiring better-paid staff with greater ability, I want them to be allowed to pick the vastly preferable second option.
We believe nursery staff should earn more than an average of £6.60 an hour. Annual earnings of £13,300 are below France’s average of £16,000. They are significantly below Denmark’s £20,000 and Sweden’s £22,000. We pay our primary school teachers comparatively well; narrowing the gap between the early years and primary school stage would send a vitally important message.
We are creating space for providers to pay more to hire qualified staff. It will be impossible for providers to move to a more professionalised model without this reform.
The government will be making announcements on funding shortly, but this is not all about money. We spend £5bn annually on the early years – about the same as France and double the OECD average. This announcement is about how to do things better.
Professor Cathy Nutbrown’s review of childcare found qualifications for the sector are often inadequate and confusing. We will introduce early years teachers who have been trained specifically to work with young children and early years educators who will need grade C or better in English and maths GCSE.
We would only allow ratios to be widened where such highly qualified staff are present. We want nurseries to be places of learning and development. We are also increasing the number of inspectors covering early years and improving the system – for instance by focusing inspections on weaker providers.
Our plans will give parents the confidence they crave – that they can leave their children with people who know what they are doing. They will give women who want to work more choice and a greater chance of being able to build a career. They will offer professionals more respect and better pay. And they will let children enjoy an environment where they can learn and grow in safety.