Over the past year, Daycare Trust and The Family and Parenting Institute have been working with the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics to see what policymakers in the UK can learn from other countries, including Norway, New Zealand, France and the Netherlands.
The study showed that there are more similarities than differences in childcare provision for the youngest children. All of the countries in the study used private and public sector providers and in most countries there was pressure to cut public spending. In many of the countries in the study the quality of education and care was a problem, with significant numbers of staff lacking higher level qualifications.
Despite this, some countries do seemingly deliver affordable and high-quality ECEC. For example, both New Zealand and Norway stand out in this respect. Both countries subsidise ECEC through simple funding mechanisms. In Norway state funding goes from central government to local government and then to providers who offered free or low cost childcare to parents. Both Norway (and France) have income contingent fees: parents on low incomes receive free care while those on higher incomes are required to make a contribution to nursery costs, although in Norway there is a cap on fees - meaning that even the highest are significantly cheaper than prices in the UK. Providers are required to meet quality standards and face sanctions if these are not met, thus public funding is used as a quality lever.
The study looked at early education enrolment rates among disadvantaged groups. Consistently across countries, our research show that children from low income and immigrant backgrounds are less likely to access services. The divide is much sharper for children under three, than over three, but universal enrolment even among over-threes has not been achieved in many places.
One clear message is that free and universal services have much higher enrolment rates than services with a fee. In Britain and France, despite very different traditions of service organisation, universal free pre-school for children aged three plus has resulted in near universal take-up. However, universal free provision is not a sufficient condition to ensure high take-up levels among disadvantaged groups. Outreach is needed to draw them in, for example, staff may need to talk to parents about the value of early childhood education and care. This is an important lesson at this moment in time, when much local authority outreach and Family Information Services are being subject to severe spending cuts.
Topically, the research looked at staffing ratios and in some countries in the study there has been a trade-off between ratios and qualifications, but only where nursery staff have degree level qualifications. In New Zealand, staff with degree-level qualifications are allowed to look after five children under the age of two and in France similarly qualified staff can look after five children who are not yet walking. But it is important to note that there is on-going debate about ratios these staffing levels, much of it from parents, and with real pressure to make changes to them.
Of course, we cannot just borrow childcare policy from other countries. Policies evolve over time and out of specific social and political conditions. In both Norway and New Zealand it has taken many years to achieve high quality early childhood education and care. But in both countries there is a strong political support for high quality childcare and a consensus that investing in it brings benefits for society as a whole. If we are to make progress in delivering improvements to childcare in the UK, perhaps the most important lesson is that we need to build greater political and public support for early education and showcase the importance and benefits of investing in high-quality childcare.