Early Years Childcare: Staff-Child Ratios

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Monday 14th November 2022

(1 year, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on leading the debate, and the family on showing great bravery in coming forward to champion this issue in the way they have. The circumstances of any death of that nature are deeply concerning and must of course be investigated properly.

I agree with one of the things the hon. Lady said in her opening speech: a functioning early years system is fundamental to our society and economy. I agree profoundly with that. In my time as Schools Minister, I saw the increasing awareness among schools of the importance of the early years support that children were getting, whether in nurseries or school-based settings, and the concern in our primary sector about school readiness, often driven by the circumstances of some of those children who had not had the opportunity to engage with early years provision or to attend nursery. Getting that right is crucial.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) both made the point about the UK having some of the highest costs for childcare. In that context, I wonder whether the putative figure—even if we accept that £40 per week is right—would make a substantial difference to the overall position. I wholly agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North about one-to-one attention and careful risk management—the careful assessment of risks taken in play. All of those are arguments for having the right ratios. They are also arguments for having better trained staff and for making sure that we reward investment in the professionalisation of childcare, professional development and pathways for progression in early years settings.

I was looking, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned—there is a Select Committee election under way—at some of the past reports by the Education Committee. In its report on tackling disadvantage in early years it discussed a lack of clarity on progression routes and apprenticeships for the sector, and challenged the Government to do more in that space. It talked about the lack of a workforce strategy for early years. I recognise that the Government have invested more in professional development for early years since the report was published, but there is more that can be done and we need to continue to look at that.

I know from speaking to early years professionals in my constituency—there are some brilliant people who work in that space, including Alice Bennett, who runs the Worcester Early Years Centre and started off in a fantastic farm-based early years setting just outside my patch in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin)—that they have a passion for driving continuous improvement in their workforce. As we have heard, in an environment in which early years has to compete with local supermarkets raising wages and becoming more competitive by offering flexible hours, retaining those great professionals is a key challenge, and we must make sure that we can reward the early years workforce appropriately. That is vital.

We have heard a lot about different ratios in different countries. I accept part of the argument made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North that we should not compare apples with pears. It is important to compare people with similar qualification levels. I remember attending the international summit on the teaching profession and being grilled by many international colleagues about the ratios in England compared with other countries. The general consensus of Education Ministers from other countries was that ours were on the low end. It is important that we do the research to look at the qualification levels that are required and how we get this right.

Part of the Labour Government’s original idea for devolution was that we should be able to experiment with different approaches in different parts of the UK, and we should be able to learn from that. I take the point that if Scotland does this with greater assurance and higher qualification levels, we need to look at that before we change the numbers. We should learn from what takes place in devolved parts of the United Kingdom. We should also learn from the approaches taken by our fellow English-speaking countries such as Ireland, Australia and others. We should look at the evidence from those countries.

The Government have invested more in childcare overall, which is welcome. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that spending on three hours of childcare has doubled since 2009, rising from £1.7 billion to £3.5 billion in real terms. That spending and investment is welcome, but I am concerned about the extent to which that reaches the people who need it most. Responding to the Education Committee’s report in April 2019, the Government said that 72% of eligible two-year-olds were taking up the two-year-old offer, and that that proportion had risen from 58%. That is welcome, but it still means that 28% of the eligible cohort—some of the people most in need of extra support—are not getting it.

There is a disjunction between our two-year-old offer, which is designed to support people most in need of catching up, and the offer for three-year-olds and four-year-olds, which is designed to support people so that they have the best chance of entering the workplace. I understand the history of how that came about and the fact that those initiatives were introduced for different reasons, but if we were starting from scratch we would not design a system with that disjunction. We would design a system to support children and parents with the challenges of childcare. It is important that we take a long, hard look at that, and I hope that, whoever wins the race to become Chair of the Education Committee, it will look at those issues.

Again, it is timely that the Select Committee should look at the wider issue of childcare. I certainly look forward to responding to the letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. He made a good point about the lack of socialisation of children in lockdown. I know this from my own daughter, who lived at home with us throughout lockdown. After her first day of nursery, she came back and said, “Mummy, daddy, I don’t like children”. It suddenly occurred to us that she literally had not engaged with any children her own age for a year at the age of two; that is extraordinary. It took her a bit of time, but I am glad to report that she now gets on very well with her peers at school. But this is an area where extra support is needed.

One of my concerns—this is something that I have heard constantly from primary school heads and teachers—is about the speech and language capabilities of children entering primary school. I note that the National Deaf Children’s Society and Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists have recently called for more investment in the specialist early years workforce to ensure that we get the right support for those children.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North mentioned, it is particularly important to identify children who have special needs and ensure that they get that early support. The education system as a whole would save enormously from identifying need and making sure that the right supports and therapies are there at the earliest stage. That proper early intervention, which many Members have spoken about over time, makes a difference.

I wholly agree with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) about an inverted pyramid of funding in the education system. The amount that we spend goes up as children go through the education system, but the returns on that investment are actually greater the earlier the investment is made. We need to keep looking at that when we look at the funding formula, to ensure that it works properly. I do not entirely share my hon. Friend’s views on the area cost adjustment, because I come from a part of the country that tends to lose out as a result of such formula adjustments, but I recognise his point.

We need to look at the pay of early years professionals to ensure we reward their increasing levels of qualifications. We must also take a long, hard look at what we are trying to do through the tax-free childcare offer. In theory, this is a great offer. It is a huge amount of money that is potentially available to people, but they are not taking it up. They have consistently not taken it up in sufficient numbers to justify it. I sometimes worry that this is a great wheeze for the Treasury. If there is a large amount of money going into childcare but it is not spent, that does not benefit either the system, the childcare advisers or the parents for whom it is intended. The figures I have from His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which were picked up in a recent report from the Institute of Chartered Accountants, were that less than 22% of eligible families are taking up the tax-free childcare for which they are eligible. I hope that the new Minister, who is a great thinker and will do a brilliant job in this role, is able to challenge her friends at the Treasury on that, to ensure that the money does flow through into the childcare sector.

I am inclined to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that it is right that the Government should ask the question about ratios, but we have heard in this debate that there is pretty heavy evidence that the answer may not be changing ratios. It may be looking at other ways to support the sector and to make it more affordable, and at the role that the Government can play in that. I say to the Minister: ask the question but listen to the evidence. Listen to the evidence from the professionals and the people working in early years. Let us make this work for the whole country, for our economy and, most of all, for the children.

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Claire Coutinho Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Claire Coutinho)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for opening this important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. Before I respond, I extend my gratitude to Zoe and Lewis for starting the petition. I cannot imagine what you have been through; the death of a child is one of the worst tragedies any of us could endure. I send you my deepest sympathies.

I also put on record my gratitude to all the staff working in settings across the country. Just last week, I was with my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) at Imagination Childcare, and we saw the brilliant work that staff do there to give children the best start in life. Their skills and experience are vital. I know the last few years have been challenging, and I look forward to working with all such staff in the months ahead, as we look at this important area.

The Members who spoke in this debate are some of the most experienced on this subject in Parliament, and I have been having conversations with some of them for, quite literally, years. I look forward to seeing what we can do together, and I thank everyone for their important contributions. We can be proud of the standard of childcare in this country. At the end of June 2022, Ofsted reported that 96% of our early years childcare providers had been judged good or outstanding at their last inspection. That is down to the hard work of practitioners. I thank them again; that is something that we can be very proud of.

I will start by setting out some of the work that we are doing today. We have consulted on a number of changes that will provide the sector with more flexibility and autonomy. We have spoken a lot about changing the ratios for two-year-olds so that it is in line with the ratio in Scotland—I will come on to that. We are also looking at flexibilities for childminders when it comes to siblings and related children, and strengthening the requirements on supervision while eating, which is particularly relevant in the light of the issues discussed today. The consultation closed in September; we are looking at all the responses, and will publish a response in due course. I will come on to some of the evidence that people have asked about.

At the heart of this debate sit safety and quality; I assure everyone that they will be integral to the proposals we put forward. We are already taking steps in this area. We have been working with the NHS, the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health and Social Care on increasing awareness of choking prevention in early years. We have also published dedicated food safety guidance for practitioners in our help for early years providers, through our online support platform. We have consulted on strengthening the supervision while eating requirements in the early years framework. Practitioners will need not just sight or hearing of children while they are eating, but sight and hearing.

We are also increasing the number of early years providers who have paediatric first-aid training. All level 2 and 3 trained staff, since June 2016, have had to have valid paediatric first-aid training to be counted in the ratios. Ofsted, in carrying out its inspections, is reporting on those safety requirements as well.

The subject of the workforce was raised powerfully by Members from across the House, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), chair of the APPG for early years and childcare, and my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). From what I have seen, recruitment and retention is undoubtedly an issue, and supporting the workforce is a priority for me and the Department. We are spending an extra £180 million on qualifications and training. I spoke to the amazing Becky and Joe from Imagination Childcare just last week, and for a practitioner, feeling valued, and training and work progression, are really important. This is not just about funding; it is also about staff feeling valued for the work that they do. We gave 2,700 early years professionals bespoke training in response to challenging behaviour arising from the pandemic. Over the next two years, we aim to give 10,000 more staff the latest training in early communication in language and maths, which has been mentioned today.

I also wanted to address the point about SEN, which I am really passionate about; I am a former Minister for disabled people, as is my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon. We are funding the ability of 5,000 early years practitioners to gain an accredited special educational needs co-ordinator qualification, but also making sure that providers have a sense of the interventions they can make at an early stage. I am passionate about NELI, the Nuffield Early Language Intervention, which is doing great work on communications development at an early stage; we have rolled that out to two thirds of primary schools, and it is having a great effect. We will also provide support and guidance through our experts and mentors programmes, as well as our stronger practice hubs. The point about giving providers flexibility, so that they feel their expert judgment is valued, is interesting. I have followed up on the question of how we make sure that these conversations with Ofsted are more of a dialogue, so that people feel there is an ongoing conversation on improving practice, rather than us having a box-ticking exercise.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), and for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), are rightly questing for evidence. It is right that the Government should look at the issue of childcare ratios. Ratios were set out in the 1980s, and we are looking at how they work in practice. We are taking evidence. As hon. Members are aware, we have held a consultation, but we have also looked at the impact, and we will set out that evidence alongside the results of our consultation. Safety has to be paramount in what we try to do, but it is also important that we look at the affordability of childcare, and at giving providers flexibility, and making sure that staff feel that their judgment is trusted. In that context, it was right to carry out the consultation, and, of course, we will come forward with the results of that consultation, and the providers’ impact assessments, which we did alongside it.

In summary, I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for securing this debate. This is a really important and emotive issue that matters to so many families across the country. I want us to get this right, and to look at the issue carefully. I thank all hon. Members who spoke for their contributions.