Sue Owen: No child should be in low-quality care

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In Unicef's latest report card, it suggests 10 benchmark standards which could support children's rights as our "economically advanced" societies make the transition to using more out-of-home childcare.

Had this report come out 10 years ago, Britain would have been near the bottom of the league tables but, after years of planned and sustained investment in young children's services, we are now in the middle and have no difficulty in meeting benchmarks such as "subsidised and accredited early education services for 80 per cent of four-year-olds".

But this is not Unicef's only message. It also asks us to think about some research showing that for children under two, the provision of low-quality childcare can adversely affect their social and emotional development, doubling the disadvantage for children from low-income homes who can only afford low-quality services in the absence of universal, state-funded care like that offered in Scandinavia.

In fact, there hasn't been much research on this and the findings are mixed – for instance, current government policy is based on studies showing that childcare can be a protective factor for families with high levels of risk. One thing we can be certain of, regardless of the statistics and the complex research designs, is that no child, at any age should be in poor-quality care.

This is not something to leave to politicians, it is a debate in which we should all engage, reconsidering how to improve the training and support for people who work with young children, ensuring that pay and conditions improve and that they get the appreciation and status their work deserves. Only these things will ensure that they stay in jobs and build long-term relationships with children and families.

We are very different from Denmark, where a much more homogeneous society is willing to contribute financially to services for which the standards and goals are recognised and agreed. In our messy, mixed economy of childcare which has grown up over time to serve a variety of families, there is little consensus on quality and how to pay for it. If the Unicef study reminds us of this and encourages further debate about childcare, then it will have done us a big service.

Sue Owen is the director of wellbeing at the National Children's Bureau

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