No sooner had we published Maureen O’Hagan’s article summarising the dissatisfaction with the proposal to change staffing ratios in early childhood services put forward by Liz Truss, the Childcare Minister, than Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, stepped in and put a veto on the progress of the plan. As he has pointed out, he had agreed to consultation on the subject, but the consultation had shown that both professionals and parents were overwhelmingly against the idea. Indeed, we have yet to meet a professional who agreed with the Minister for Childcare’s proposal.
We recall visiting a day nursery when staffing requirements were less stringent. It was set in an old house, and each of the large rooms had a stable door, so that an adult in the hall could look into each of the rooms to see what the tinies were up to. In each room there was a horde of little children playing, fighting and squealing, with hardly an adult in sight. It looked like a piggery without the sows.
We are sure that Liz Truss was not intending to move into kiddie-farming on this scale, but little children need a lot of personal attention, which takes time, and the improved qualifications she was advocating will not enable the trained staff to cope with more children, though they should do the job better.
The problem the Children’s Minister was trying to solve was the cost of child care. If the ratios of adults to children are going to stay the same, and if the professionals are going to receive a reasonable wage, the only way for parents to pay less is for the government to pay more. In the current economic climate that idea may not be popular with the coalition, but we understand that early childhood services in many other European countries are more highly subsidised.
It is a strange anomaly that parents have to pay out for most of the care for little children, while schooling is free. Our view is that education is such an important investment for the life of the community and the economy that it should all be funded out of taxation and free to the children, young people, students and their families.
That may be for the future, when there is once again money to invest. For the present we simply want to say thankyou to Nick Clegg and his colleagues for listening to the views of professionals and parents, and for taking action. The public is rather cynical about consultation, as time-scales are often short, decisions seem to have been made in advance, and the scale of objections often seems to be ignored (remember the two million who demonstrated against the impending Iraq War?), so it is good that this consultation was real and the decision reflected the overwhelming views of respondents.