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At least someone was listening

Has there ever been a U-turn on Government childcare policy as great as this? After six long months of campaigning, with thousands of signatures on paper and online petitions started by childminders, early years organisations and parenting groups, the changes to ratios that everyone feared would be so damaging for young children are now ‘dead in the water’, as Nick Clegg reportedly told sector leaders.

In a bizarre turn of events - that surely could only happen with a Coalition government - the Deputy Prime Minister issued a childcare policy briefing, which rubbished all the arguments made so vociferously by education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss. This is all slightly odd, because for a long time many felt that the Government – and particularly the minister - was simply not listening. The same arguments were being made time and time again, but did not appear to be heard. But early years leaders, academics, nurseries, childminders, parents, and child experts united in their opposition, continued to plug away, making their case, urging people to sign petitions, and join the campaign.

Childcare was in the newspaper headlines, on the news, the debate was on Newsnight, and then Nick Clegg decided to get involved. Here he was on his LBC radio show, saying he had ‘grave concerns’ about the plans. It must be gratifying for all concerned to see that the protests were not in vain, that they had not really been making all this noise for nothing. Whatever is going on politically behind the scenes in the coalition, we can but speculate. The briefing paper concludes with a statement that the Government will shortly consult on the detail of the new Tax-Free Childcare scheme. But the paper circulated by Clegg’s office highlights all the arguments that the sector has been making so loudly since the proposals first surfaced in ‘More Great Childcare’, referring to surveys by providers, academic research and parents’ views. It sets out clearly the three main objections that have been made: the changes will not result in lower childcare costs for parents; that they will undermine the quality of care and learning and could put children at risk; and that the changes won’t be taken up by providers, especially because parents don’t want them.

It is slightly surreal to see these arguments set out in black and white in a Government document, but there they are. It includes Neil Leitch’s damning comment about the DfE’s economic analysis released last week, that the Pre-School Learning Alliance was ‘appalled by the cynicism’ of the Department. ‘The model they have put forward is so far from reality, I’m surprised they saw fit to publish what reads like a work of fiction.’

It includes Busy Bees' claim - the country’s largest provider with more than 19,000 nursery places - that rather than saving parents money the changes could actually lead to an increase of a £1 a week for parents, as savings from reducing staff numbers would be wiped out by increasing staff salaries. It also includes the results of the IPPR survey of childminders, which found that 93 per cent of them said there would be no effect in their costs for parents, as well as comments by the then Daycare Trust and Family and Parenting Institute (now the Family and Childcare Trust, and PACEY (the Professional Association of Childcare and Early Years).

It includes Professor Nutbrown’s comment – let’s not forget the Government’s own expert - that, ‘Trading staff: child ratios for higher qualified staff is nonsense. Watering down ratios will threaten quality’, as well as the evidence by Professor Kathy Sylva, Naomi Eisenstadt, Sandra Mathers and Brenda Taggart in their paper on the research evidence - ‘relaxing ratios for this age group (under threes) will lead to a reduction in quality; and improving qualifications would not lesson the impact.

And finally, under a headline ‘Myth busting’, we learn that, ‘Some of the ratios that have been cited for other countries don’t take account of all the adults working with children, so are not comparing like for like’, and a line that many in the sector may well hold dear, the acknowledgement that (drum roll), ‘The French have a completely different system of childcare.’ Congratulations to everyone who has campaigned long and hard against the ratio proposals. As Nursery World’s editor Liz Roberts tweeted today, ‘The early years sector has woken up to a brighter morning.’          

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