New childcare proposals won't make childcare more affordable - quite the opposite, in fact.
The Government plans to allow childminders and nursery workers to look after more children than the current rules allow.
When Elizabeth Truss, the early years minister, announced her plans, she argued that increasing the ratios of children to carers will increase the number of childcare places available, reducing costs for parents in the “long term”.
As the mother of a one year old I fundamentally disagree.
Childcare ratios set to rise
In my opinion, increasing the number of children a nursery worker can look after by 33% (from three children under two years old to four) and increasing the number of kids a childminder can look after by 50% (from four children to six, with double the number of babies) won’t lead to any reduction in costs for parents.
Yes, the carer could in theory then charge less per child and still earn the same amount or more.
Yes, if the plans go down well with carers, there would in theory be more childcare places available. This could (also in theory) lead to greater competition on price.
But in reality, I think parents will end up paying more to avoid the carers offering the higher ratios - just 5% of parents are in favour, according to Mumsnet. Meanwhile, the carers who do choose to increase their ratios of care will charge exactly the same per child as they do now, for what will necessarily be a lower standard of care.
Why? Because anyone who has ever looked after very young children will know that increasing the ratios in this way will increase the carer’s workload and stress levels by about 500% - and why would anyone ever offer to take a paycut in order to do that?
The idea that standards of care will improve because carers have to gain extra qualifications in order to increase their ratios is, quite frankly, laughable. You don’t need qualifications to look after more children, you need an extra pair of hands per child, and eyes in the back of your head.
For example, a nappy change for one baby would mean leaving the other baby unattended and feeding them all (and cleaning up afterwards) would in my opinion take the childminder half the afternoon. And that’s if the day is going well. Now imagine all those children screaming, crying or (let’s not beat around the bush here) screeching like demented banshees. Because that’s the reality of life with very young children - especially if the adults caring for them are stressed themselves or can’t manage to get them to eat or sleep at the right time.
And that’s just indoors. What’s worse is imagining, as Polly Toynbee did in The Guardian, how the childminder is ever supposed to go outside with the children? She challenged Liz Truss to manage to push a double buggy filled with babies while managing four toddlers on leads, or to fit six car seats into her car, strap in six children and drive off calmly.
Personally, I’d love to see Ms Truss take up the challenge - but I wouldn’t want my child to be part of the experiment.
Why prices would go up
In my opinion, only carers desperate to earn more money would bother to gain extra qualifications in order to spend all day, everyday, indoors with six bored children desperate for a slice of their carer’s heavily divided attention. Once qualified, why wouldn’t the carer just keep the price per placement the same as it is now, and simply pocket all the extra money from the extra children?
Surely they would feel - understandably - that they were earning it?
Meanwhile, 95% of parents (if the Mumsnet survey is correct) will, like me, be desperately seeking childcare at childminders and nurseries which continue to offer lower ratios, even if that means forking out more. After all, far from there being increased competition among these providers, there will in fact be fewer of them, and they will be under increased pressure to match the wages on offer at higher-ratio care providers by putting up prices.
No wonder the proposals have been met by fierce criticism from both the National Childminding Association and the National Day Nurseries Association.
Parents don’t want it, carers don’t want it and children will suffer for it. Anyone else feel like trussing up Ms Truss?
What Elizabeth Truss should have done
So what could she have done to make childcare more affordable? Well, how about increasing the amount of tax-free childcare vouchers available to working parents? At the moment, basic rate taxpayers can only pay for £55 of childcare a week from their gross salary. Yet childcare typically costs £165 a week across the nation and £233 in London. Doubling the amount of vouchers parents could get would save working parents around £1,000 a year each.
Similarly, the minister could have increased the 15 hours of free childcare on offer to three- and four-year-olds, or extended the scheme to younger babies.
Yes, there would be a cost to the Government for these measures, but if it enabled more parents to work full-time or part-time, it would also benefit the economy and ultimately the Exchequer. According to the Institute for Public Policy Research, the absence of affordable childcare is one of the main factors preventing well over a million women from taking up paid work - and the average return to the Exchequer of a mother going back to work full-time is £20,000 over four years.
Clearly, Ms Truss couldn’t see her way towards actually helping parents pay for childcare. But the proposals she has laid out this week will only make the situation worse. Shame on her, and shame on this Government.
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