To the point: You must be kidding

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Trying to have a childcare system like the French does not come for free, says Vidhya Alakeson


Childcare minister Liz Truss is arguing that British settings should be more like French 'ecoles maternelles'. Teacher led and offering more structured activities than UK nurseries, it's questionable whether British parents would accept such structured environments. But there's also the much bigger one: would childcare be more affordable as the Government claims?

The Government's plan seems simple on the face of it. Nurseries and childminders who have better qualified staff will be able to operate with less strict ratios. The money saved by allowing each adult to care for more children will be spent on paying the better qualified staff more. So far, the plan makes sense and is in line with existing regulations which permit settings with a qualified teacher to relax their ratios. But then the plan seems to go awry.

If the money freed up by relaxing ratios pays for better qualified staff, how will childcare be any cheaper for parents? Even if we assume that providers will pass on any surplus from looser ratios to parents in the form of lower prices, the plan doesn't make sense as it is effectively spending the same money twice. Money saved from relaxing ratios can be spent on better qualified staff or cheaper places but not both.

Ms Truss argues that, according to the OECD, we spend as much on childcare as the French - £5 billion a year - but parents there spend less of their disposable income on childcare. This must mean that we can afford better qualified staff at the same time as lowering prices for parents. It has to be a simple matter of reorganising how we spend the money.

Surely, the Government is kidding itself or parents? It's long been established that children do better when staff are better qualified, although there is evidence that the number of adults also counts. But let's stop pretending that we can have a highly qualified workforce in childcare on a par with primary school teachers for not a penny more. Even if we relax ratios, becoming France does not come for free.

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