The options to fix Britain’s ‘broken’ childcare system

Proposal to ease staff-to-child ratio in nurseries has been met with anger

An infant with building blocks
(Image credit: Manu Vega/Getty Images)

The government is attempting to fix Britain’s “broken” childcare system with a new package of measures, but the proposals have been criticised by early years providers and parents alike.

Out of all developed countries, Britain is believed to have the highest childcare costs, beaten only by Slovakia and Switzerland, according to OECD research published last year.

The nation’s motherhood wage penalty – the financial gap between childless women and mothers in the six-year period after they have their first child – is estimated to be around 45%, according to a study by UCL researchers published in the European Sociological Review journal last year. This discrepancy is almost double the penalty experienced by mothers in Denmark and Sweden.

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The motherhood wage penalty is felt most acutely by new mothers, with the UCL researchers finding that “wages drop by 28 per cent, equivalent to an average of £306 a month” within one year of a mother having her first child, said The Times. Rising childcare and general costs resulting from the cost-of-living crisis have only worsened the situation.

Relaxing staff-to-child ratios

The UK’s childcare system – described by Labour’s former education secretary Ruth Kelly as “broken” – is now widely believed to be at crisis point. In an attempt to deal with the situation, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi today announced new proposals that include supporting more people to become childminders and relaxing staff-to-child ratios from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds in England.

The Netherlands, Sweden, France and Scotland already have staff-to-child ratios of 1:5 for children aged zero to two years old. According to the government, childcare provision for that age group is the most expensive to deliver and easing the ratios from 1:4 to 1:5 could potentially reduce the cost of early years childcare by as much as 15% or by up to £40 a week for families paying £265 a week for care.

Will Quince, the children and families minister, stressed that tweaking the ratio “was about offering flexibility to early years settings”. He told the BBC that the Scottish model was a good one and “only a slight tweak or variation to what we do”.

But a survey by the Early Years Alliance published in May found that just 2% of providers said that ratio changes would result in lower fees for parents. As many as 80% of the 9,000 nursery and pre-school staff members surveyed described themselves as “strongly opposed” to the notion of easing staff-to-child ratios and 75% said they would be likely to leave their job if the ratios increased.

A ‘short-sighted’ plan?

The proposal has been met with anger from politicians, providers and parents alike. Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson described the government’s announcement as “pathetic” and “not the answer parents want and not the answer children need”. “The government is out of ideas,” she added.

Equally as frustrated by the plans was Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA). In an interview with Grazia magazine, Tanuku described the government’s focus on tinkering with ratios as a “short-sighted” plan which “will not achieve the desired outcome”.

“It shows a lack of understanding of how the early years sector works in this country,” she added. “We risk putting additional pressure on an overworked workforce while undermining efforts to give children the best start in life.”

And Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, took a similar view. It is “beyond frustrating that the government is wasting its time consulting on relaxing ratios, rather than just admitting that if we want to have affordable, quality, sustainable care and early education in this country, we need to invest substantially more into the sector than we are doing at the moment”, he is quoted as saying by The Independent.

One mother-of-two told the BBC that she worried that the new ratios could create a two-tier system for parents – “those who can afford paying for the extra costs of lower ratios and ‘those who have to be driven by price as they have no other choice’”.

Learn from our neighbours

There is “no loophole or easy way” to deal with Britain’s broken childcare system, wrote Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, in a piece for The Guardian last month. But what we can do, she continued, is learn from some of our European neighbours.

In Luxembourg, for example, “the government provides up to 60 hours free a week and subsidised childcare to all children aged between one and four”, while Iceland “offers lengthy, largely non-transferable leave to both parents, paid at 80% of average income”.

And in Finland, according to another piece in the same paper, “the state provides universal daycare from the moment a parent returns to work”, while also offering fathers nine weeks of paternity leave after the birth of a child.

Along with offering generous maternity and paternity leave, the government should also focus on “normalising uptake among men as well as women”, added Bates. That would be a step in the right direction “toward sharing the burden of childcare equally between men and women”.

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