If you want to cause an almighty tornado in the world’s biggest tea cup, start meddling with childcare, says Liz Fraser
Elizabeth Truss, the minister with responsibility for childcare, found this out recently when she announced proposals to require child carers to have a minimum educational qualification of GCSE in maths and English, increasing the number of children they could look after, and thus, in theory, reducing the cost of childcare to parents.
It created a furore. Online, in toddler groups and at the school gate, the cacophony of outrage, worry and confusion among parents was audible from Lands End to John O’Groats.
‘The logic is so obvious,’ one mum said to me, while dropping her son off at school. ‘If the carer-to-child ratio increases, each child will have less attention. How can that be better for the child?’
And as for the qualifications, almost no parent I spoke to cared about them.
‘I don’t care if my children’s carers can do simultaneous equations or read Shakespeare,’ says Jenny, mother of two primary school children and one pre-schooler. ‘I just want them to look after my children well. Caring is not the same as having good GCSEs. It’s a different skill altogether.’
Other parents were concerned about the social implications of the changes. Claire, mum of two at nursery, suggested it would widen the gap between rich and poor. ‘People who can afford it will be able to pay more to get a good staff:child ratio while others will just have to accept the changes and reduction in care. It won’t save parents money; it will make the nurseries more.’
So why are these proposals even being considered? ‘Our childcare reforms will mean higher-quality early education for young children and more choice for their parents,’ says Andrew Bell, the government’s children and families senior information officer. ‘Giving providers more freedom to decide how best to care for children, working with parents, will bring us more in line with ratios in European countries. It will mean that nurseries can employ fewer but better qualified staff, who can provide high-quality early education that prepares children for school.’
But the question parents are asking is: if the ratio of staff to children is reduced, does this not lower the quality of the care? Many parents strongly disagree that more qualifications equates to higher quality.
‘To be clear about the ratios,’ says Bell, ‘they will not be mandatory. And it is wrong to say that safety is only about ratios. Fundamentally, safety is determined by the quality of supervision and care provided by a nursery.’
It won’t just be children who are affected by these changes – their carers will be affected, too. ‘As well as the dilution of love, care and attention needed for each child, it makes no sense to place child carers under increased pressure to be able to provide top-quality childcare, especially at such a young age,’ says Judy Reith, creator of Parenting People. ‘Expecting a child carer to provide a caring and interesting day for six babies or toddlers at once is like expecting a mother of sextuplets to do the same. Having sextuplets is extremely rare – Mother Nature knows this is not a great parent:baby ratio, so why does the government think it is do-able?’
This is before we even consider mundane practicalities, such as child carers taking children to toddler groups, out for picnics, and so on. Will they all have to buy seven-seaters complete with appropriate child seats?
Cost and practicality aside, is it really so important to teach babies literacy and numeracy at nursery? Is this just hot-housing gone mad?
Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, says it’s all about preparation for what’s to come, rather than ‘teaching’ as such. ‘The best way to help pre-school children lay down sound foundations for literacy and numeracy is to ensure plenty of active, creative, social play. I recommend at least five picture books a day, like fruit and vegetables.’
But should children be taught to read and write so early? Will it be too much too soon for some? ‘Of course we should support children if they’re interested,’ says Palmer. ‘But don’t push it. For all sorts of reasons, children vary in their developmental needs. For some, especially boys and summer-born children, rushing into reading and writing before they’re ready and willing can be completely counter-productive.’
As with all aspects of childcare there is no one size fits all. My children could all read and write a little bit before they started primary school, but only because they loved being taught their letters and numbers, from an early age. Other children I know had no interest at all.
But I would always rather have a carer who was fantastic with children, loved them and knew how to look after them well than one with more ‘official’ qualifications. And whether they agree with the proposed changes or not, what puts all parents’ backs up is the feeling that they are being sold something that isn’t what it seems.