Child Care

Part of Business of the House (26 February) – in the House of Commons at 9:46 pm on 13th February 2013.

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Photo of Elizabeth Truss Elizabeth Truss The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 9:46 pm, 13th February 2013

I congratulate Lucy Powell on raising this important topic and I congratulate her, too, on being a working parent in the House of Commons. It is important to have wide representation, so it is great to see more working mothers and more working fathers in the House. I am delighted to reflect on the fact that the hon. Lady’s future children might benefit from our developing policies on this issue.

My aim as Minister with responsibility for child care is to try to make life easier and better for working parents and their children. Every parent who goes out to work wants to have confidence that their child is receiving the best possible early education and child care. I think we can achieve that—and achieve it by using the existing system and resources as well as, hopefully, future resources in due course.

Sadly, that is not the case for parents at the moment, as there are issues about availability, cost and quality, which is variable. There was a recent worrying report from Policy Exchange, which suggested that quality is lower in deprived areas, where we need it to be of the highest quality. One thing we have done in the new two-year-old programme we are launching, which will benefit 260,000 two-year-olds by 2014, is to state that those two-year-olds should go to good and outstanding providers. I think that is an important measure.

The hon. Lady mentioned the cost to parents, and she is absolutely right that our parents face some of the highest costs in Europe—on average, 27% of income is being spent on child care. I have met many parents who are struggling with the financial burdens they face.

As for Government spending, there is a debate about the OECD figures, and it is often difficult to get to the bottom of these international comparisons. The evidence suggests, however, that although we do not spend as much as the Nordic countries, we do spend as much as countries such as France and Germany. Yet, despite the high parental input and the high Government input, we have people on the front line in child care who are earning an average of £6.60 an hour. That is simply not good enough for the important job being done by those charged with bringing up and educating the next generation.

All the evidence about brain development now suggests that the quality of staff is of paramount importance. Qualifications are also important, as is demonstrated by the study carried out by the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education team, and also by the OECD’s recent “Starting Strong” report. The Department’s first report, “More great childcare”, focuses on the need to improve quality and qualifications. We are working on the cost issue, and will have something to say about it in due course, but unfortunately I cannot say anything at present.

There are currently more than 400 child care qualifications, and parents and people in the child care industry do not know what they mean. We are creating a single qualification at level 3, called the early years educator. People entering that course will need to have C grades in GCSE English and maths, which I consider very important. We are also creating the early years teacher programme, which will confer teacher status. Recruits to that programme will pass the same tests as teachers have to pass on entry.

As the hon. Lady said, we are giving high-quality providers more flexibility, but only when they invest in high-quality staff, and only if they want to use that flexibility. There is nothing compulsory involved; we are merely giving additional flexibility to providers who meet high-quality requirements. That is, I think, an incentive for providers to upskill their work forces, and it gives them headroom in which to do so.

As we have established, many staff are paid barely more than the minimum wage. We want to emulate high-quality countries where pay is much higher. The Nordic countries tend to pay their staff more than £20,000 a year, while France and Germany pay between £16,000 and £18,000. Here in England, we pay £13,000. All those other countries pay considerably more to their early education staff, and all of them have larger allowances in terms of ratios than we do. Indeed, Scotland and Ireland have higher ratios than we do. At present we have the lowest ratios in Europe, and I do not think that that gives providers enough headroom to hire high-quality staff. As I have said, however, it is for providers to make the decision, and we will only allow them to do so if they invest in high-quality staff.

The hon. Lady asked me who supported these changes. One supporter, I believe, is the shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg. He has suggested that we should adopt the Danish or the Swedish model. Neither Denmark nor Sweden sets mandatory ratios at national level. They believe in paying people well, and in employing high-quality professionals who make judgments at local level. That is the kind of system that I want to see. I want to see a more diverse system, in which we trust professionals to make those local judgments. Two-year-olds or three-year-olds may be at different stages of development, and may have different needs. I think that we should allow nursery staff who are properly qualified and trained to make the judgments about the best support that is available to those children.