Exclusive interview: Elizabeth Truss, Minister for Education and Childcare

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Funding streams, quality, pay and sustainability are high on the new minister's list of priorities. Clearly she has been listening hard to the early years sector, as she explained to Liz Roberts

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When Elizabeth Truss, MP for South West Norfolk, became Minister for Education and Childcare in the government reshuffle in September, there were quite a few gasps of horror from around the early years sector.

After all, this was the woman who, back in May, had enraged childminders with calls for a Dutch-style system, with childminders able to look after more children and taken out of the Ofsted inspection system to be regulated by agencies.

Cue loud protests from the childminding community, fearful that their hard-won progress in the professionalisation of the role was in jeopardy. Others in the early years sector, too, were convinced that Ms Truss would usher in a whirlwind of deregulation as soon as her feet were under the ministerial desk.

Two months into the job, however, and this fast-rising member of the Conservative party, who was first elected only in May 2010, has obviously been listening hard to the early years sector.

When I interviewed her recently, her words were measured, and her answers liberally sprinkled with references to the importance of quality, the need for better pay, and the need to tackle providers' problems with sustainability.

Holland gets a mention, but only within the context of looking at a wide range of systems in other countries - and relegated to the end of a list including France, Germany and even Denmark.

Ms Truss's determination to simplify early years funding streams and make sure that more money finds its way to the frontline should chime with hard-pressed providers. She even agrees with former Labour children's minister Beverley Hughes that supply-side funding is the way to go.

It's no easy task to sort this out, she agrees - 'when you lift the bonnet on the issue and you see just how complicated it is, these things can take time to reform. But that is the general direction of travel that I am keen to see.'

An announcement on the funding system for the free places for disadvantaged two-year-olds is imminent, and while she is cagy about the finer details, Ms Truss says that this will show the way that the DfE will be moving.

There are no plans though to change the learning and development side of the EYFS further, but some aspects of the Safeguarding and Welfare Requirements could be amended, in line with the aim to reduce regulation that does not contribute to 'safety and quality'.

Government responses are due, too, on the Nutbrown Review and the Childcare Commission, so by the end of the year, the early years sector should have a much clearer idea of what the minister has in mind.

ELIZABETH TRUSS

... ON HER IMPRESSIONS OF THE SECTOR

I obviously met quite a lot of people before I got the job, and it's an area I'm interested in. I've got young children myself.

I think that quality has improved. We've seen a growing professionalism in the childcare sector as a whole. A lot of the discussions that I've had with providers have been that there is an issue with sustainability. Feedback that I get from parliamentary colleagues is that some providers are struggling.

We know there is also an issue with the extent to which parents can afford childcare. My broad feeling is that it is an industry that has changed, but there are a lot of issues. One of the things I've been doing is visiting other countries ... We're all facing similar issues. There's a growing recognition of the real importance of early years both from the point of view of child development and from women's/parents' participation in the labour market.

We know we're in a more competitive world where the quality of our education is really important to our future prospects as a country and I think that early years is rightly being recognised as a really important part of that.

What I want to do is learn from the successes and failures of others and also look at what's best in our system. There are some very strong aspects to our system - for example, the Ofsted inspection regime.

I think there's a lot to work with. I think there's a great deal of interest in new ideas and innovations. It's a very interesting time to be doing the job.


... ON THE TENSIONS BETWEEN THE NEEDS OF THE CHILD AND THE NEED TO GET PARENTS INTO WORK

The reality is that parents want what is best for their children. People don't want to go out to work not being happy that their child is being well looked after and being prepared for the future, and they want to know that the child has the best possible quality care. I think that (the two things) are completely compatible and I think they have to be because we don't want parents to go out to work at the expense of their child's development and education at all.

What I want to do is make sure that our system focuses on the really important things, which are the safety of the child and the quality of care that the child is receiving so that our regulatory system and our professional qualifications are focused on those two things rather than other things which don't contribute.

I want to make things simpler and focus on what is important to parents and what is important to our country as a whole. It's really important that children receive the best possible early education.


... ON WORKING MOTHERS

The Resolution Foundation has rightly in my view raised the issue of middle income families and second earners who face a particular squeeze in this country, and I am concerned that we have fewer mothers going out to work now than they do in France and Germany, and, if you look at the 1980s and 1990s, we had more mothers as a proportion.

That's not to say that I want to force mothers back to work. DfE has done a survey that shows that roughly 50 per cent of mothers have chosen to stay at home and 50 per cent would like to go out to work but the circumstances make it difficult, and one of the main issues is the cost of childcare and the availability.


... ON FUNDING STREAMS

There's a confusing number of funding streams. The funding isn't transparent. (That doesn't) contribute to those two objectives of quality and safety.

At the moment in our system not enough of the £6bn spent by the government is reaching the frontline. We want as much of that money as possible to be going on high-quality provision. We want providers to have an incentive to make sure that their provision is as high quality as possible.

We're leaking out funding. Quality costs, but we're also spending money on things that don't contribute to quality and that is simply a question of getting better value for the money we spend.

We've got a problem in that some providers are struggling to stay afloat and at the same time we're pumping quite a lot of money into the system. So the question for me is, how do we make that work better?

... ON THE FREE ENTITLEMENT FOR TWO-, THREE- AND FOUR-YEAR-OLDS

Wait to see what we do on two-year-old funding, because we are going to make it more transparent for providers to know which rate to expect. We are going to send a very strong message on quality that providers will be expected to reach, but also about the rate.

I think simplicity and transparency are really important - to say to providers you are going to be rewarded for hiring high-quality staff, for putting on good staff training and development, for making sure that you are following best possible child development practice. We are going to be judging, or the system is going to be judging, the quality of outcomes and the quality of engagement with the child.

I am fully aware that funding for three- and four-year-olds is an issue. I've been talking to providers over the last few weeks ...

What I would say is see what we do with the two-year-olds funding and that will be a signal.


... ON THE FORTHCOMING RESPONSE TO THE NUTBROWN REVIEW

We need to make sure that it's not just the people in the nursery and childcare system who understand what's happening, but also that parents understand what qualifications mean. It's back to this point about simplicity and transparency.

I want the early years profession to be a really attractive occupation for people leaving school and for graduates. I want it to be something that people want to go into. I think it's really important that the profession is as outward-facing as possible, and that people understand what the qualifications are and what they mean.

There (need to be) new expectations around salary levels. There is an issue with pay in particular parts of the sector. I think all these things are linked, so I want to give quite a comprehensive response about the regulatory system, and about what we're going to do about qualifications as well.

I want to build on the EYPS. It's been a positive move and I want to build on it. We'll also be looking at Ofsted and the way Ofsted measures outcomes. That will all be addressed under our response to Nutbrown.

The other aspect is increasing the level of professional discretion and professionalisation, and that means allowing, where there are not issues of quality and safety, providers more say in how they operate.

I think it's really important that if we say to people you are a graduate leader, that we allow people to exercise that professional judgement, and that's what parents want - high quality, trusted people who are properly regulated by Ofsted, making decisions about how they run their nursery, their childminding practice.


... ON LESSONS FROM ABROAD

If you look at countries such as France and Germany, they are managing to get very high quality. If you speak to French parents about the quality of their 0-3s care, it's very well regarded. They are managing to get high quality and high affordability and the government funding is more evenly spread across providers. So they are managing to use that government funding better, they allow more discretion, they've got very strong quality measures. So my question is, how do we get to that kind of system?

I don't think we should be defensive. Yes, a lot has been achieved, but in order to get to a new level, and we need to get to a new level both for the sake of children and their development and for the sake of parents who are struggling, we need to be flexible.


...ON BEVERLEY HUGHES SAYING THAT THE LAST GOVERNMENT SHOULD HAVE GONE FOR SUPPLY SIDE FUNDING

I agree with her, completely agree with her. There is a recognition on the part of some in the former government who say that and I think that’s right. What supply side funding means, lots of people interpret that in different ways, but if it means making sure that the maximum amount of money is going straight to the frontline on regulated providers I completely agree with her.

I don’t favour a Swedish system where every nursery is run by the government. I think she was talking about the supply side funding which is what we are doing with our two-year-old offer and, as you pointed out, there are issues with the three and fours.

The multiplicity of funding pots that were created – the vouchers, the entitlement, the tax credit, it makes the system less clear and efficient. We want a system where providers know what they can expect to receive and parents know what they can expect to receive and then they can focus on delivering quality. When you have a really complicated system that confuses the whole issue.

I’m very pleased that Beverley Hughes has said that because I think it helps make the case for change.

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