Don't let the cost of childcare come down at the price of quality

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As the Government consults on Tax-Free Childcare, quality reform seems to have taken a backseat, says Imogen Parker


The consultation on tax-free childcare has brought early years reform firmly back on the news agenda. The cost of childcare is always headline-worthy: parents will be wincing this summer as the average cost of a week of holiday care has crossed the £100 mark for the first time.

The debate on cost will rage on, but it seems that the focus on quality reform seems to have taken a backseat.

Delivering a high quality system is hard. Part of the problem is cost. The Government are in straitened circumstances, and parents are feeling the pinch. Aspects associated with high quality care (qualified workforce, low ratios, good equipment and activities and so on) come with a price tag.

But the challenge isn’t only financial. While there’s a vast literature on child development in the early years, it doesn’t immediately translate into policy decisions about boosting quality. There is a set of tricky questions like: Which elements of childcare should be prioritised for which ages? Do ratios matter more than qualifications? How important are general qualifications compared to childcare-specific qualifications or experience? What impact do different types of settings have on children, and when is it best they are cared for by parents? How much time should children spend in childcare, and from what age? The evidence does not provide easy answers to these.

One reason why it is so difficult to set out a clear, evidence-based case for how best to organise childcare to boost child development is that different childcare models (and their evaluations) have different factors affecting their performance. Provision can be targeted to a specific group of children, or it can be open-to-all. The age and grouping of children vary, as do the type of settings, sectoral mix, intensity and duration of care. Providers have differing organisational structures, content and activities, as well as varying levels of autonomy, regulation and monitoring. And the staff who interact with children have contrasting levels of training, qualifications (both general and childcare-specific) and experience.

Yet more challenging is the fact that the impact of structural aspects of childcare (elements that are more easily legislated on, such as level of qualifications needed, maximum ratios, or floor space per child) is mediated through the process aspects of childcare which affect development (like the nature of interactions, or the warmth and tone of conversations between children and adults). But it’s easy for process aspects of childcare to be overlooked in policy, despite their importance: it’s more straightforward to focus on ratios than policies to promote warmth.

Although it’s difficult to draw together the evidence for practical policy, it’s critically important, particularly when finances are tight and difficult decisions needs to be made. New IPPR research has tried to bridge the gap between evidence and policy, drawing out broad lessons for policy makers. Looking across the evidence we believe in some instances current policy doesn’t best reflect the evidence, and in some areas changes could jeopardise the current standard of care.

There are some quality measures the Government can propose that are proven to boost quality, where costs could be recouped. For example they could bring back a version of the Graduate Leader Fund to boost the professional development of those delivering the free entitlement. There’s good evidence that early years graduates boost the quality of care for the over-threes. While there would be upfront costs to supporting this professional development, these could be recouped: within the current framework, the presence of an Early Years Teacher will allow settings to look after more children per adult. Settings which gain a graduate could take on more children, cut costs for parents, pay qualified staff higher wages and mean professionals could afford to pay back some of their qualification costs. The evidence shows that for children aged three and older a highly qualified workforce is more beneficial to their development than low ratios. So more early years graduates means more childcare and better childcare. And our calculations, based on the Government’s own model, show costs could be covered.

The Government needs to go back to the evidence. Already they’ve had to row back on ratio change for the youngest, because there was no compelling case that it would either cut costs or boost quality. They’re underplaying play in new qualifications, despite its proven importance in how young children learn. And deregulating childminders through agencies, while cutting the role of the local authority to drive improvement, may bring quality down.

It’s important costs are considered, but not at the price of quality.

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