There was some good news in last week's Ofsted report: more than
three quarters of childcare providers are now good or outstanding - more
than ever before.
But the news on how well children themselves are doing was less heartening. The poor performance of the least well off kids attracted the ire of the chief inspector and most of the coverage, but let's not be fooled that all the problems lie there. Overall results are worrying too: just over half of children achieve a good level of development at the end of the foundation stage. That is too few.
Ofsted changed the way it measures good for this last report, so it's no longer possible to compare outcomes over time, but we can compare them across places. That gives us some sense of how much better we could all do just by matching the best. The difference across local authorities is startling. Just over a third of children on free school meals achieve a good standard of development nationally. In Greenwich and Lewisham, however, six out of ten make it to good and there are seven local authorities where at least half of the poorest kids achieve a good standard of development.
Of course, children's outcomes are affected by much more than childcare. We need to unpick how some areas do so much better than others, even with similar or higher levels of deprivation. But I fear that childcare policy is heading in the wrong direction.
The Government has said families on Universal Credit will now be able to claim 85 per cent support for childcare costs, up from 70 per cent. The problem is that this, and the £750m going to tax-free childcare, will do little to drive up quality. There is no way to link money that is put into the hands of parents directly to improving staff qualifications, for example, and parents are not perfect consumers.
Internationally, the evidence is that demand-side subsidies tend to drive up prices more than they improve quality - but quality is the ingredient that improves child outcomes.