As the meeting wasn't just for me and Liz to get to know each other and then for me to grill her, I tabled and summarised all the views and opinions received and the minister agreed to come back with a response, I will publish this as soon as available. If you would like a copy of the table provided to the minister, please contact me.
Following the meeting, many people emailed me to ask how it went and the honest answer is I don't know. Obviously the minister wasn't going to rip up the reforms in front of us, grab a flip chart and ask us to re-write and, to be clear, I do not feel qualified to do that anyway but I did feel she wanted to listen to our views and concerns and I am grateful to be afforded this opportunity. At work, I gauge the success of a meeting on its outcomes and I am unsure of how we, as representatives of the parent blogging community, will influence the childcare policy decisions of the coalition government but we definitely expressed a united opinion that the current childcare situation was inflexible, too expensive and not conducive to parental choice and that the reforms had some way to go to rectifying these complaints.
Relaxation on ratios
From the responses I received on the reforms it was clear to me that it is the relaxation on ratios that people were most concerned with.
It was the minister's view and the view of Ros Marshall (CEO of Kids Unlimited Nurseries who chaired the meeting) that only the highest quality childcare providers measured on qualifications of staff and Ofsted reports should be afforded the option and flexibility to decide how the reformed ratios could be applied. It was confirmed that no nursery or childminder, even with the requisite qualifications, would be obliged to adhere to the new ratios.
Personally, and I raised this directly with the minister, I wholeheartedly disagree (along with a petition of over 25,000 people) that the ratios currently in place should be relaxed. Baby and child attention, quality of care and safety should be the foundations for child care provision. To me it is obvious that even the highest qualified child carer would not be able to look after 4 babies as well as it could 3. Experts in pre-school child care have confirmed to me that it is adult interaction that affects the outcomes and development of pre-school children and of course those adults should be highly qualified, motivated and able to earn a decent wage but that should be in addition to the current ratio guidelines rather than instead of.
The minister went on to say that she would like to see a culture shift in how we view pre-school child care with it being thought of as an early years education rather than just early years care and this is where she sees the benefits in the French and Danish child care systems. When comparisons are made between the child care system here and the systems in France or Denmark I can only see the differences rather than the similarities. If we are going to look to these countries for inspiration maybe we could take the obvious benefits these systems have like: Denmark’s enhanced maternity policy meaning that less babies are in the child care system; the fact that both of these country's governments subsidise the cost of child care; and that both countries invest a significantly higher percentage of public funds into the system than our government plans to, rather than following their example on ratios?
As my daughter is in the under 2 category I do not fully understand whether the relaxation on ratios to allow for a more group teaching setting would be beneficial to the 3-4 age group as suggested by the minister in the meeting but again my instinct and common sense tells me that maintaining ratios and developing child carer's skills and insisting on an entry level of qualification would better the outcomes of children in this age bracket. As for allowing under 3s (in other words, 2 year olds) into school settings without the need for additional Ofsted registration, I cannot begin to understand how that could increase the quality of child care and the outcomes of toddlers.
One thing to come out of the meeting is that I totally misunderstood the driver for the ratio changes. I thought that it was the coalition's plan to decrease the cost of childcare by relaxing the ratios so that less, but more qualified, staff would be employed which could decrease overheads or, alternatively, free up more child places, with the objective of passing on the savings or additional revenue as reduced child care costs for parents. The economics of this never made any sense to me so I raised this with the minister and she confirmed that the change in ratios was not the main driver to reduce childcare costs and that a supplemental set of reforms entitled ‘More Affordable Childcare’ will be published shortly setting out the coalition’s plans to make child care more affordable. Goodness knows why the two sets of reforms were not brought out simultaneously but from the minister’s enthusiasm for these economic reforms, I have to remain optimistic that these reforms can only improve the current financial barrier child care costs has created for parents wanting to work.
I took away from the meeting a definite belief that the minister wants the quality of child care in this country to be improved. She would like the money the government currently spends in the child care sector to be utilised by the front line care providers and not lost in the bureaucracy of local authorities. I completely support these objectives. I want my daughter's nursery to be run by motivated, literate, numerate, inspired professionals who earn a decent wage and bound out of bed every morning to greet my child. I want those professionals to be respected and in turn to respect my daughter’s needs and wants. I want all of this at a cost I can realistically afford. BUT I am not willing to compromise my daughter’s attention requirements and safety to achieve all of this. I don’t think I should have to.