Clegg says no to childcare ratio changes. My question is: why’s it the Government’s job to dictate them?

teather_cleggNick Clegg’s statement is categorical — the Coalition is abandoning plans to allow nurseries and childminders in England to look after more children. Revealed in January by Conservative children’s minister Liz Truss, the idea that the ratio for under 2s, for example, could increase from 1:4 to 1:6 was always going to be controversial. Here’s Nick:

“One of my absolute top priorities in government is to deliver better quality, more affordable childcare for parents up and down the country. I will relentlessly champion and pursue policies that deliver that – like 15 hours a week of free childcare for every three and four year old and tax-free childcare for working families.

“When you are talking about something this important to parents, I think it is imperative to be led by the evidence – which is overwhelmingly against changing the rules on ratios. The proposals to increase ratios were put out to consultation and were roundly criticised by parents, providers and experts alike. Most importantly, there is no real evidence that increasing ratios will reduce the cost of childcare for families.

“The argument that this will help families with their weekly childcare bill simply does not stack up. I cannot ask parents to accept such a controversial change with no real guarantee it will save them money – in fact it could cost them more. I have concluded that, because it will not reduce costs for parents or increase the quality of childcare, the proposed ratio changes for pre-school children cannot proceed.

“Ratios for pre-school children is just one part of a wider package of reforms being looked at in government. I will continue to work closely with ministerial colleagues in this area and the Coalition Government will come forward with other proposals in due course.”

The Coalition’s internal debate has been played out to maximum public exposure. The original announcement was relayed as agreed Coalition policy, but that was swiftly refuted by Lib Dems who said Nick Clegg had agreed only to a consultation on the raising of ratios.

Whether you think the Tories tried to bounce the policy through by announcing something that wasn’t agreed, or whether you think Nick Clegg reneged on an agreement once it proved controversial, will depend on your own loyalties. Maybe it was just a plain, old-fashioned misunderstanding. Either way it hasn’t made the Coalition’s plans in this crucial policy area look joined-up.

On the issue itself, I remain puzzled.

I can see the argument that raising ratios might impact on the quality of childcare provision. Intuitively, one adult looking after six 2 year-olds rather than four could impact on quality.

Then again, would I rather my child was looked after by three highly experienced childminders in a group of 18, or four less well-qualified childminders in a group of 16? I think I’d prefer the former, thanks.

More importantly, I’d like to make my own mind up having visited the nursery and spoken to staff and other parents — not be told by the Deputy Prime Minister that “he cannot ask me” to make that decision. So long as it satisfies Ofsted as regulator, and as long as the children, parents and staff are happy, why is it the Government’s business exactly what the ratio is?

PS: it’s worth reading Liz Truss’s pamphlet for CentreForum ‘Affordable quality: new approaches to childcare’ (May 2012) where the UK’s approach to childcare is placed in a European context.

As she points out there, savings from moving to higher ratios would give nurseries a choice: “either higher paid staff to be attracted to the profession improving quality and availability or alternatively [making] the service more affordable.” Government sticking to rigid ratios removes that flexibility.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • “So long as it satisfies Ofsted as regulator, and as long as the children, parents and staff are happy, why is it the Government’s business exactly what the ratio is?”

    The problem is that you seem to be looking at an ideal world. Parents often don’t get to send their kids to their preferred nursery but to the one they can afford.

    It seems to me that Clegg has looked at the evidence and that should always be our approach where child safety is concerned.

  • Agree that it does seem like unnecessary micromanagement on behalf of the government.

    But suspect that the bigger issue here is that Nick Clegg feels he needs to score a point over the Tories.

  • Child care is a business. They would have done one of the following:
    1) squeezed more children in and not dropped the prices.
    2) if they couldn’t actually fit more children in they’d lay off some staff.
    The prices wouldn’t have dropped either way. Is there anyone who thought they would? Isn’t it just an easy way of creating a few more nursery places…?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 6th Jun '13 - 11:43am

    I think reason number 1 is that if you want parents to go out to work and pay you lots of tax, you want to make them feel confident that nurseries are going to offer a certain standard of care. Regulators only make sure the law is being complied with. Politicians need to make the actual law to be properly accountable.

    If they can otherwise afford to have one parent staying at home paying no tax, you can see why people would choose that option rather than send their child to be one of six toddlers looked after by one person at nursery. Being one of four is just about manageable if you have huge amounts of creativity, resourcefulness and patience.

    There is no way on earth that I would put a baby in nursery under the current ratios -I don’t like the idea of having one person looking after 3 tiny ones – you only have two arms to hold them in. At some point, somebody is not going to be picked up when they cry and that would be unacceptable for me. Others will see it differently, or have no choice, or would find an option where there baby got one to one care. I think Government needs to explore other methods of childcare than just nursery – and they are. Giving everyone the right to request flexible working will make it easier for grandparents to help out. That will help many families with both costs and peace of mind.

  • David Allen 6th Jun '13 - 12:32pm

    If you allow schools and nurseries to adopt the standards of Dotheboys Hall, then in competition for the poorer customers, there will be a race to the bottom, and good nurseries will lose out to cheap nurseries.

    This will in turn allow employers to cut wage costs, as working parents (OK, I mainly mean working female parents of course) will then be able to afford the cheapest nurseries even on reduced wages. This in turn will mean that those working parents who would have liked something beter than Dotheboys Hall will now be unable to afford it. This in turn will make more good nurseries close as they lose out to cheap nurseries.

    There is such a thing as market failure. Perish the thought, now we are on the Right, but, it may often be a bigger problem than state-run-organisation failure.

  • The question that people aren’t asking is whether NOT implementing the changes could end up costing parents more than implementing the changes…

    @Caron Lindsay
    It isn’t necessarily just a matter of being able to (financially) afford to have one parent stay at home, although it is a consideration, it’s just that once you add up all the costs and logistics surrounding the juggling of work, home and young children’s social lives (remember many families have two children albeit a few years apart in age), it can be much less stressful having one parent effectively staying at home and use child minders/nurseries as breaks. So you adjust your lifestyle accordingly, even though the government offers no concessions in spite of recognising that this arrangement is beneficial.

  • Next week, Why dont we let businesses hire kids like in the good old days?
    Week after, Why do we make kids go to school?
    This was proposed and backed by people with zero understanding of the reality of childcare for very young children. Even the minister used a nanny rather than a nursery.

  • Peter Hayes 6th Jun '13 - 5:56pm

    Simple question. Would the rules allow a carer to leave other children un-supervised? If you look after 3 and one needs help in toilet training are you happy the other 2 were safe left alone if they were yours? Yes parents may have to do it but should that be the standard for a commercial organisation?

  • Stuart Mitchell 6th Jun '13 - 6:44pm

    Simon Shaw: “To say there is ‘no real evidence’ sounds to me a bit like saying that there is no real evidence that (say) cutting VAT from 20% to 10% would reduce prices. It might be that retailers and manufacturers all decide to boost their profit margins instead. But we all know what is really likely to happen.”

    It would likely reduce prices, but not by anything like the 10% you seem to assume. Prices tend to go up more freely than they come down – economists call this “the ratchet effect”. There are plenty of empirical examples of large VAT decreases leading to only tiny price decreases.

    Frankly, a lot of companies *would* use such a tax cut as an opportunity to increase their pre-tax prices. An infamous example is the tendency of fuel companies to put up petrol prices literally within hours of duty cuts being applied.

    Is the nursery market really that competitive? I know when I was looking for a private nursery, my choice was determined almost entirely by location.

    Also, none of what you are saying would apply to childminders, who make up 60% of childcare providers. What childminder in their right mind would voluntarily do more work for the same amount of money? Which is what you are assuming they would do. They would drop their prices very little or not at all, otherwise there would be no incentive whatsoever for them to take on extra children.

  • David Allen 6th Jun '13 - 7:26pm

    “To my mind, qualifications are not the way to go. Good childcarers aren’t always good at taking exams.”

    Yes. The nursery employs Edna, age 55, who never dreamt of taking a degree, but is bright, is a mum, and knows how to look after toddlers: and Becky, age 22, who wasn’t good enough to take a degree, got a childcare qualification as the next best thing, but isn’t a mum and isn’t much good with kids. If Clegg hadn’t stopped it, the nursery would have had to sack Edna and keep Becky.

  • There is actually quite a lot of evidence that increasing ratios doesn’t help. Have a look at the following:

  • keep the ratios, otherwise we could end up with standards like those 3rd world countries Sweden or Germany.

  • Fake, the ratios are measured differently in Sweden, because there in addition to the paid professional staff, parents contribute a number of days through the year. Do you recall the Tories making plans that parents would take a day off worka month to help out in nurseries? If you dont know the Swedish system, dont make the facile comparison.

  • Simon Shaw

    Another plausible result is that they charge the same and keep the difference – or rather then the owner charges the same but makes the childminder work harder

    Where do you get the idea the private sector is naturally altruistic – of course you will say the market will decide and that will control the cost – the market tends not to work quite like it is supposed to though does it?

    Not convinced

  • Stuart Mitchell 7th Jun '13 - 5:18pm

    “Another plausible result is that they charge the same and keep the difference”

    Which is exactly what my former childminder did when she doubled her roster by taking on my two. It never occurred to me that she might reduce the price as Simon thinks would happen; in fact it came as no surprise at all when she put the prices up every year.

  • Simon Shaw

    Ahhhh that perfect ‘market’ that has worked so well in so many areas of British life…..

    Is this what Lib Dems really believe now – a question for members

    Do you, as Lib Dems, agree with Simon Shaw that the market will ensure that quality standards are met and costs will fall without any need for regulation by the Government?

  • David Allen 7th Jun '13 - 11:34pm

    A question being debated here is: Is this a perfect market (prices fall readily in response to market signals) or a sticky market (when costs fall, prices stay high and providers swallow the profits).

    Leviticus suggested (6th June 11.28) that the market could be sticky, and shows that the consequences of that situation would be bad.

    I suggested (6th June 12.32) that the market could be closer to perfect, and showed that the consequences of that situation would also be bad.

    In truth, I don’t know for sure whether Leviticus is right or I am right about the stickiness or otherwise of the market. But whichever is closer to the truth, withdrawing State-imposed decent minimum standards would either help providers make excessive profits, or would harm child welfare, or both.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Jun '13 - 1:15am

    bcrombie, Lib Dems generally believe in dispersing power and fostering competitive markets. There are disagreements in areas like health, education and utilities, but practically none of us are pure freemarketeers.

    In response to Stephen’s question: no I do not think the state should set childcare ratios. However this does not mean I believe in having no regulations whatsoever.

  • Stuart Mitchell 8th Jun '13 - 11:27am

    If you have evidence that the market would work in this way, did you submit it to the consultation? If not, why not?

    According to Clegg, the evidence suggests you are wrong.

  • Eddie Sammon 8th Jun '13 - 1:19pm

    I’m sorry to jump into this but I’m getting quite irritated by the constant calls for evidence to back up opinions, policy ideas or even basic economic theory.

    Neither politics or economics are sciences. This means that there are no hard and fast rules and evidence can be produced in order to present pretty much any opinion as “fact”.

    I am worried by the growing calls for evidence based policy because people seem to be miss-selling opinions as facts and even refusing to listen to people’s beliefs unless they can present it with some questionable pieces of “evidence”.

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