My Lords, there is much to welcome in the Queen’s Speech. I particularly look forward to the advent of the Children and Families Bill. I welcome the attention that the Government have been paying to adoption and I hope that we may be able to encourage them to offer still more support to adoptive families and provide further support for young people leaving care as the Bill makes its journey through your Lordships’ House towards the statute book. I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Jolly, her concern that there is no legislation or regulation for the minimum pricing of alcohol or for blank packaging on cigarettes. I am concerned in particular that many of the children who are taken into care come from backgrounds where alcohol misuse was a contributing factor to family dysfunction. It would be helpful if alcohol was less available to young people so that they would be less likely to start the bad habits which persist when they start their families.
I do not wish to tire the patience of your Lordships so I will concentrate on one issue that is of deep concern to some in this House, and which was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, in his remarks. My time will be spent considering the Government’s proposal to introduce the opportunity for early years providers and childminders to increase the ratio of children to carers where the carers can demonstrate improved qualifications. I begin by applauding the Government’s attention to this important policy area. I am particularly pleased that they have chosen to maintain important requirements with regard to the supervision of early years staff and that they have welcomed the report of the Nutbrown review, with its call for higher qualifications for early years staff. The Government have stated that their first priority is better quality childcare; the Education Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, repeated that last week in this House. The Government have also been seeking to make this better quality childcare more affordable for parents.
I hope that I may also pay tribute to the last Government’s attention to childcare. They introduced the first Childcare Act, placing a duty on local authorities to provide a sufficiency of childcare. They invested significantly in developing the workforce, introducing career development pathways and early years professional status. International assessment of the UK’s progress has been very favourable, and there is an encouraging sense of political consensus and commitment to getting this policy right. One of our main aims is to improve outcomes for children. High quality early years care has been clearly demonstrated by the EPPE research project to improve children’s outcomes. Indeed, I have heard the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, speak about this many times. I was very struck by a presentation I attended three years ago by Professor Melhuish of the University of London. The research he produced found that children with a good early years experience would tend to continue to do well in their education at the age of 11 whether they attended a good or an indifferent primary school. Good early experience is a protective factor against poor later educational experience.
The right honourable Iain Duncan Smith MP and the honourable Graham Allen MP have both highlighted that it is the early years when we can break the cycle of disadvantage and put children on a better path because, at that point, their brains are highly malleable. They and the noble Earl, Lord Howe, have referred in the past to the importance of new findings in neurobiology where brain scans can show us how the infant brain is sculpted by the loving relationships around him. At the same time, we have been warned about the impact of prolonged exposure to poor quality early years care by Professor Jay Belsky. He presents the other side of the coin: the harm caused by poor quality care, harm which increases the younger a child is exposed to it and the greater time over which the child is exposed.
I should now like to raise my concerns about the Government’s proposals, and I preface them with some comments on current practice in baby rooms. It is essential that babies feel that their carers are attuned to them, that they feel their carers are keeping them in mind, and that they know their wants will be met. Regulations recognise this and each baby is required to have one or two carers as their key person in the nursery. However, there are challenges to doing this even as things stand. Carers may be working shifts, as may the parents themselves. There may be a high staff turnover. The job is also extremely demanding and the workforce is mostly made up of very young and inexperienced women. In this context, I am very troubled by the Government’s proposal to allow early years providers the choice to increase the number of babies cared for by each carer from three to one to four to one. The Government seek to reassure us by saying that better qualifications will be a prerequisite for increased ratios. It is a matter of regret that the Government chose only to consult on what the qualifications requirement might be rather than if indeed the ratios should be changed. It seems clear to me that the important prerequisite for good-enough baby care is the number of staff. As my mother used to say to the four of us when we were children, she was not an octopus. Staff have only so many arms and eyes, and the overwhelming academic consensus is that, with babies, one needs first a sufficiency of carers. Here I shall quote a literature review from the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand entitled,
Quality early childhood education for under two year-olds: What should it look like?
. It states that,
“the strongest and most consistent predictor of observed positive caregiving in group-based early childhood settings was the adult:child ratio ... caregivers provided more sensitive, frequent and positive care when they were responsible for fewer children ... the optimum ratio for under two year-olds in education and care settings was consistently stated as 1:3”.
The Government seek to reassure us further by looking to France, Germany and Scandinavia. I agree that we should look at best practice from our neighbours but we should, I suggest, do so critically and avoid picking up some of their worst habits. France, for instance, has ratios for babies of five to one. However, according to “The Predicament of Childcare Policy in France: What is at Stake?”, published in volume 19 of the Journal of Contemporary European Studies,
“young children are often cared for by a rotating cast of characters and institutions within the same day. This is particularly so when both parents have non-standard work schedules; when the parent is living alone; or, when there is only one child”.
There is considerable concern about this practice on the continent.
I regret that I am not comforted by the Government’s reassurances. I continue to share the concerns of five of the major childcare providers, of the Early Years Alliance, of Mumsnet and Netmums and, indeed, of the Deputy Prime Minister on this particular topic. I am also uncertain that a change in ratios will produce savings for parents. In a recent editorial, Nursery World drew attention to the many factors contributing to the UK having some of the most expensive provision in the world and suggested that hard-pressed providers may not pass any savings made to parents.
To conclude, I am grateful to the Government for giving childcare this careful attention. I also hope that the Minister might be able to answer two questions. Have the Government looked again at the assessment of the evidence and are they still confident that increasing the number of babies—children aged under two—to carers will not be harmful if it is balanced with a raising of qualifications? What is the Minister’s response to parents’ groups that are concerned about the Government’s proposal? I look forward to the Minister’s response.