The Wright Stuff: 'It’s not all about the ratios'

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Relaxing ratios isn't the answer to cheaper childcare, says Liz Bayram.

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Liz Bayram

Another day, and another media debate on 30 hours. This time it was Channel 5’s The Wright Stuff programme which kicked off a discussion with an unconventional question for anyone working in early years. Simply - would we be better off without any ‘free’ childcare hours?

Unsurprisingly this led to controversy, encouraging heated debate and a lot of confusion. None of it helped by the presenter Matthew Wright’s use of alt facts, to capture a favourite US term at the moment.

Mr Wright started with the misguided statement that nursery workers and childminders were 'running off into the sunset with taxpayers money'. His comments focused on the launch of a report from the Institute of Economic Affairs which questions the validity of the Government’s 30 hours scheme.

By focusing on this one report and not the wealth of evidence to the contrary, he started off what could have been a valuable debate by misrepresenting the thousands of hard-working, poorly paid, mainly women working in childcare settings. It wouldn’t have taken much to find out that quality care costs money; that settings are struggling to retain their staff and deliver that quality alongside rising costs. It wasn’t difficult to find out that the childcare workforce is one of the lowest paid in the UK, many working for minimum wage.

The Wright Stuff got its stuff badly wrong this time. The programme assumed that childcare providers were benefiting from offering funded hours; assumed the rising cost of childcare was just providers lining their profits, and paying themselves a fortune.

Then it seemed they might have seen the error of their ways. Overnight his research team had set to work. The following day, Mr Wright backtracked on his comments; dismissing them as a ‘joke’ as he gave a potted history of the Government’s funding for childcare to camera. He made comparisons to other countries and highlighted the ratio differences between childminders and nurseries. Going even further he said people who work in childcare are not well paid. Like many I sighed with relief …

But no, sadly the autocue was not rolling when he got into the debate.

One of the panel, Lowri Turner, could see the benefit of funded hours for working parents. But then Matthew Wright started talking about ratios, and this time he was unscripted; it was all his uninformed opinion again. Once he started talking about ratios it’s fair to say he didn’t stop.

His view – Scandinavia have relaxed ratios and happy children, if we reduce our ratios and regulation, costs come down and everyone wins. Oh so simple eh?

He didn’t stop to think for one minute, if it is that simple, why hasn’t anyone done it already!

While it is the case that ratios are lower in Scandinavia, unlike England their entry requirements are more stringent; their workforce includes mostly teachers and they are well rewarded and respected. All because the government funds childcare appropriately. It is not a like for like comparison.

Yes there are a raft of issues around funding that the childcare sector is facing; the fact childminders are leaving the sector; settings are struggling in light of increased costs and overheads; and there is a distinct lack of support from some local authorities – some businesses are seriously considering whether they are financially viable. But ratios are not the issue.

Matthew Wright clearly wasn’t tuned into childcare in 2013 when the sector and parents were united in their opposition to the then Minister for Education and Childcare Elizabeth Truss, and her plans to ‘loosen’ ratios. Needless to say the proposed changes didn’t happen. Thankfully the Government saw sense – namely how children’s experiences of quality childcare would reduce and safety compromised if ratios changed.

Early years practitioners work hard to deliver high quality early education. More children and fewer practitioners is a backwards step. The sector has strived to get to where we are and to shrug off an outdated image. Sadly in one fell swoop, Mr Wright dragged it all down to cheap prices balanced by increased numbers of children in a setting; childcare professionals resorting to being ‘helicopter’ babysitters and our youngest children missing out on the high quality start they deserve through early education.

So PACEY and its members have once again done what it can to set the record straight. If there is one saving grace from today’s media furore, it is that Matthew Wright has received such a backlash to his misguided opinions he will think twice about making such flippant remarks again.

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