Early Years Childcare: Staff-Child Ratios Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Early Years Childcare: Staff-Child Ratios

Robin Walker Excerpts
Monday 14th November 2022

(1 year, 7 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.