Childcare reforms must be seen, not just heard

So now nursery carers will be able to look after more children, which means more nursery places, and more overwhelmed teachers

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The Independent Online

With every week, the Government seems to become more like a fat, desperate town crier, walking up and down with his silly bell, straining his voice to be heard in the market square of UK plc. He’s ruddy-faced, bloated and limping slightly. Despite the fact that some people have thrown buckets of water over him, he keeps shouting in a jolly, aristocratic baritone, announcing imaginary improvements which no one can understand.

Now, heaven help us, the town crier has a special message for a special interest group. “Hear ye, lady womb-owners and infant-bearers of this parish! The great eye in the sky hath seen your recessional pain! Ye can barely afford to work! Ye do not have any monies remaining after paying for childcare! Lo, now we will allow you to put as many of your children in the care of others as ye like! No restrictions on the numbers and to hell with health and safety! All at the same time and for the same monies! Or something like this. We are not quite sure yet.”

As he burped out this half-formed thought, the town crier found himself wearing ladies’ clothes – a Boden wrap dress, in fact! – and taking on the attributes of children’s minister Liz Truss. The town crier does not often take a woman’s form as he is not much concerned with women’s business. But votes are votes and childcare is a vote winner!

So here was the big news: a plan to boost the qualifications of nursery carers (no one can quite say how) and increase the child-to-carer ratio. So each carer will be allowed to look after six two-year-olds rather than four. They can mind four under-ones instead of three.

Ta-da! It’s magic! More nursery places! Ring the bell triumphantly!  Clear the market square for the dancing bears!

Kids galore

Except it doesn’t work. Two adults in charge of a dozen two-year-olds? Qualifications will not help you there. Ear plugs and sainthood might. Also, how does this make life easier for parents? There is no shortage of nursery places. There is a shortage of affordable, quality nursery places.

Truss cites European case studies as evidence, saying there are no limits to the ratio in Denmark, Germany or Sweden. But in Scandinavian countries, they don’t count nursery assistants in their staff numbers. In any case, the logic is flawed. Pick the most qualified, pay them more and dump more children on them? Anyone who has looked after  pre-schoolers knows they do not respond to qualifications. They respond to time and individual attention. They’re pretty inconvenient, that way.

This is why this scheme won’t even do what it’s designed to do: encourage more women to go back to work (to what jobs, anyway?). If anything, it will make existing working parents more worried about the standards in nurseries. If you’re used to your child being one of four and suddenly they’re one of six, wouldn’t you consider moving them? Ah, but it’s all voluntary, says the Government. Nurseries don’t have to change their numbers. It’s only if they feel like it. So what’s the point, then?

If you read the not-so-small print behind this initiative, it’s not even a policy, it’s just a suggestion. It’s another way of looking as if you’re doing something when you’re actually doing nothing. It’s only because the town-crier has put on a dress this week that anyone has paid any attention at all. Turns out it was just the usual guff. Which reminds me, I can’t help feeling that if there were more women in Government available to front these announcements, any change to childcare arrangements might be meaningful and significant instead of pointless and “voluntary”. Maybe if you like ratios so much, that’s one you could have a look at?

What plan?

What’s most tragic, though, is that this non-move is divisive. It just makes people without children think, “What are you breeders always moaning about? They are always making life easier for you. What have they ever done for us?” When in fact no breeders have been remotely helped at all by anything that has been discussed in the past 24 hours.

This pathetic, doesn’t-add-up-to-anything so-called plan is a whole pile of nothing too late. Please, Government: if you are going to do something about childcare, will you just do it instead of banging on about it all the time? Allocate money. Devise an attractive commercial model. A lot of you are businessmen (with the emphasis on “men”): you must know how to do this. But no. You will not do this. Instead, you will put your energies into tax breaks for the rich. On you go. People voted for you, so it seems you are allowed to. Just be honest about your values while you go about it.

Meanwhile, Liz Truss’s report, “More Great Childcare”, should be re-titled “More Tomfoolery Designed to Convey the Impression that We Are Helping Parents When We Are Not”. Although that would have been a bit of a mouthful for the gouty old town crier. Still, at least he got to wear a dress and talk in a high voice for a bit. Bless him.