The Childcare Conundrum
Today the Minister for Education and Childcare, Elizabeth Truss, will set out the government’s plans to reform the childcare system. While Truss is right to identify the problems with the UK childcare system, the proposed solution of increasing the ratios of childcare worker to child, is likely to worsen the problem, rather than alleviate it.
Let’s be clear, we have a big problem with childcare in this country. In fact, we have lots of problems with childcare in this country. To name but a few; it’s too expensive; it often doesn’t meet the demands of our long hours work culture and atypical working patterns; it is poorly paid and undervalued and there is little in the way of progression available to those who work in the childcare sector.
Parents cannot afford to pay for childcare. Daycare Trust and Save the Children (2011) which found that two thirds of parents struggle to pay for childcare and many have got into debt in order to meet childcare costs. A recent Resolution Foundation report, Counting the Costs of Childcare, showed that for many low income women, the cost of childcare simply makes work unaffordable. According to the Resolution Foundation’s analysis, the cost of childcare for a 2 year old in full time education stands at 31% of the average wage.
Yet in spite of the spiralling cost of childcare, those working in the sector are struggling to make ends meet. Childcare workers are among the lowest paid workers in the UK. Surely looking after babies and children is an important, responsible, and socially valuable task which should be rewarded. So why are the people who care for our children are paid far less than, for instance, a mechanic who looks after our car?
Our dysfunctional childcare system has a lot to answer for. The fact that childcare is unaffordable creates a huge barrier to women’s labour market participation. The fact that childcare is almost entirely carried out by women and is so poorly paid traps women in low paid work with no progression routes and perpetuates the myth that caring is “women’s work”.
This is a complex problem. Countries which have made progress on this issue have invested heavily and have also recognised it as an issue of gender equality. Actually, to make a real difference, what is needed is a major overhaul of how our care system – all forms of care, not just childcare – is designed and a paradigm shift in how we as a society value care work. Tweaking the system around the edges is unlikely to achieve change. However, if tweaking around the edges is all that is possible, of all the many possible policy tweaks, changing the ratios of childcare worker to child – as Truss has proposed today – seems the least logical.
Truss cites Holland to support the relaxing of ratios. In fact, the Dutch experiment in deregulation of the childcare sector was pretty disastrous and the government has since had to row back on its policy. The relaxing of ratios in Holland didn’t have a significant positive impact on maternal labour market participation or on the number of registered childminders but it did have a significant detrimental effect on the quality of care provided. Analysis of the Dutch experience by the Daycare Trust, based on academic research from the University of East London, found that although the number of childminders ostensibly increased when the sector was deregulated, this was not the result of an influx of new childminders but rather the result of grandparents registering as childminders to look after their own grandchildren.
Relaxing the ratios of childminders or childcare providers in nursery settings is bad news for the child as well as the childminder. Academic studies have shown that low ratios in pre-school settings are associated with high quality care and positive child outcomes.
Even if this policy were good for the childminder’s earnings and good for the child’s outcomes, in practical terms, it simply doesn’t work. Anyone who’s looked after a couple of two year olds will know, you only have two pairs of hands and two knees. There’s a limit on how many nappies you can change at any one time, how many children you can restrain from pulling the boiling kettle down on to their head, how many children you can feed, how many noses you can wipe and how many cuddles you can give. Or as Polly Toynbee puts it in today’s Guardian, “how do you fit 6 toddlers into a buggy?”
This cannot be the solution to the childcare problem. Any solution will require investment and a bolder vision than what Truss has shown us today.