UK childcare needs to be more affordable - CentreForum

Nursery school class
Image caption Elizabeth Truss said there were problems with quality, price and availability

UK childcare needs to be overhauled to make it more affordable, a report for think tank Centreforum has suggested.

The average family spends more than a quarter (27%) of income on childcare, according to Elizabeth Truss's report .

The Conservative MP argued regulation should be simplified and childminders allowed to care for more children at a time, to attract higher-paid staff.

Critics said this could put the quality of childcare at risk. The government said it had been cutting bureaucracy.

In her report, Ms Truss said recent studies had shown widespread problems with quality, price and availability.

The figure spent on childcare in the UK is higher than every country in the world except Switzerland, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

Ms Truss, MP for South West Norfolk, said the number of nursery places had increased since 1996 but childminder places had dropped drastically in the same period to 245,000 in 2010.

'Spiralling costs'

This had led to price inflation and becoming a childminder was now fraught with red tape, her report said.

It called for childminders to be allowed to take on more children at one time.

Under current rules there has to be one minder for every three children aged five or younger, the report said.

This ratio should be changed to one adult for every five children aged five or under, it said.

Ms Truss argued this would attract higher-paid staff to the profession, improving the quality and availability of childcare, or making it more affordable, and making the UK comparable to other European nations.

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Media captionChildminder Jane Comeau's view of the plans

Her report also called for a single funding system and for childminders to be able to register with a local agency, nursery or network which would take responsibility for inspection and training and be regulated by Ofsted.

"The coalition government has a great opportunity to simplify the provision of childcare and get better value for money for parents," Ms Truss said.

"Reform could lead to an increase in availability of flexible childcare and an end to spiralling costs."

Assuring quality

Ms Truss told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that British childcare had the lowest ratio of children to adults in Europe.

"Childminders are getting an average income of £11,000 a year, so not many people want to go into the profession, therefore you have an issue about quality provision."

But Daycare Trust chief executive Anand Shulka told Today he did not think Ms Truss's proposals would do very much to address the cost of childcare.

"Looking at the question of ratios, I think, will do very little in terms of reducing the cost of childcare because the additional income that may come in by having more children would be offset by the higher salaries that you pay to childcarers."

Mr Shulka said he doubted deregulation would lead to lower costs for parents and thought the model proposed by Ms Truss had "issues in relation to assuring quality".

"If you look at the Netherlands they went down this road a few years ago and they've had to row back on it because they've been so worried about some of the effects in respect of quality. The cost to the exchequer went up by 50% as well," he said.

The Department for Education acknowledged families were finding it hard to pay for childcare but said the government was addressing this by strengthening and investing in free early education.

"We're already cutting bureaucracy and paperwork by slimming down the early years curriculum - to make sure that nurseries and childminders focus on what really matters in child development, such as speech and language," a spokesperson said. "We'll continue to scrutinise all the rules and regulations to make sure they are genuinely ensuring safety and driving up quality."

'Accessible, affordable quality'

MP Harriet Harman was the architect of New Labour's childcare policy.

She told the BBC "choice was at the essence" of the policy. "Accessible, affordable quality - that's what we wanted," she said. "Childminders themselves wanted to be more trained and more professionalised."

But Deb Knowles, who runs Sheffield's Hydra Tots private nursery, told the programme she knew of several local childminders who had left the profession because of the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) compulsory curriculum.

"It has put some childminders off," she said. "In the local vicinity there were quite a few childminders and I know of three that have left because of the stresses of the paperwork.

"They're very good with children, they're excellent with the families but they're no good from an administrative point of view - they don't have the training and other education themselves to be able to administer the Early Years Foundation Stage appropriately."

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