My Lords, I like roundabouts. They often have flowers on them and are very good reservoirs for wildlife. I shall focus my remarks on the Children and Families Bill that is currently going through another place. I am pleased to say that there are several things to welcome; for example, the improvements in the independence of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner. Like Oliver Twist, I always want more, so I will be hoping for a few further improvements. However, generally, the Bill provides a great step forward and one that will allow the Office of the Children’s Commissioner to take its place at last around the table of international children’s ombudspersons.
I also welcome the changes to the arrangements for children with special educational needs, for which we have to thank my honourable friend Sarah Teather, the former Minister of State for Children and Families. Thanks to her, at last we will have a holistic approach to the needs of these children. I know that there are concerns about this and how it will work but I am sure we can sort that out when the Bill comes to your Lordships’ House.
I welcome the parental leave measures and I welcome with caution the changes on the arrangements for adoption but it is a pity that the Government did not take the advice of the Select Committee on Adoption Legislation in relation to racial matching and how soon fostering for adoption can be considered. Those matters will be debated in more detail on Thursday afternoon, so I will keep my powder dry until then.
The main issue on which I shall concentrate is the proposal to change the ratios of adults to children in early-years settings. I think that that is a daft idea. I am a great believer in evidence-based policy and in consultation. I am afraid that there is no evidence that these proposals would result in either an improvement in the welfare of children or in the affordability of childcare. When 95% of the professionals responding to a consultation tell you that you have got it wrong, the Government must pause for thought. Fortunately, my own party leader, the right honourable Nick Clegg, read the consultation responses and took notice. I was delighted with his statement that he is not convinced these proposals should go ahead. I agree and hope that he will stand firm.
The Government report, More great childcare, proposed changing adult to child ratios for babies under two years from one to three to one to four, and for children aged two to three years from one to four to one to six. Of course, some might say, “I had four children and I managed”. Yes, but they were not all under two at the same time. We need to remember that, however well qualified and committed, a child carer has only one pair of eyes and one pair of hands. So to be asked to look after too many children could actually put children in real danger as well as impeding their development.
These changes are counter to research evidence on quality and ratios. The current ratios are not there by accident but for a very good reason. Research for the Department of Education by Munton, Barclay, Ballardo and Barreau in 2002 and research from New Zealand in 2011 indicates the safe and effective ratios and I do not believe that they should be changed. It has been said that Sweden, whose childcare we all admire, has no national ratios. However, it has ratios but these are established locally.
Changing the ratios so that young babies vie with three others for their needs to be met by one practitioner will inevitably mean that many of their attempts at communication through eye contact, babbling and pointing will be missed. Yet evidence tells us that it is the responsiveness of the carer, noticing and responding to these small signs of communication and mirroring the child’s facial expressions, which supports language development.
As we all know, language development is one of the most important factors which must precede learning to read. A confident speaker with a wide vocabulary will become a confident and happy reader, and that will have an enormous impact on his future academic achievement. Research by Wells and Nicholls, Language and Learning: an Interactional Prospective, and significant articles from The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry provide the proof of the importance of interaction with adults in language development. This would be impeded if the ratios were increased. The changes are also counter to evidence and recommendations in the government-commissioned Nutbrown review of 2011. I believe that Professor Nutbrown, among many other professionals, has expressed her concern about the Government’s proposals.
If ratios are revised upwards, babies will find their care needs to be less well met, leaving less time for peaceful cuddles during feeding or for patient coaxing during weaning. Responding quickly to need plays a large part in supporting babies’ development of empathy and self-control. A recent book by Paul Tough, How Children Succeed, brings together evidence from numerous research projects in the United States, one of which shows how important is the touching and cuddling of the baby to brain and social development. This helps the child to develop resilience and the ability to concentrate and persist in a task, all essential for future success. Much of this is, of course, provided by the parents, but when a child is being cared for by somebody else it is very important that this interaction is carried on.
The main reason given for the idea of changing the ratios is to make childcare more affordable for parents. However, we are told that settings will be able to raise the ratios only if they have highly-qualified staff. While I strongly support the aim of increasing the qualifications of staff working in the early years, I cannot see how this would bring the costs down. More highly-qualified staff will want to be more highly paid, thus cancelling out any savings that might have been made by the nursery by taking on more children per adult. It is only right that staff who work to get higher qualifications should expect to be paid more. Otherwise, why would they bother? The sector is not highly paid, so there must be some incentives to train.
Andreas Schleicher of the OECD has been quoted in support of the changes, but what he actually said was that, while staff qualifications are more important than ratios, the research relates to “formal schooling—primary, lower secondary and upper secondary”. But here we are talking about the youngest children who have very different needs. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, has also been quoted in support of the Government’s proposed changes, but Ofsted has taken no public position on the matter. Sir Michael rightly supports improvements to staff qualifications, but he accepts that the arguments for the youngest children are different.
I know that these changes would be voluntary, but it is clear from the consultation that most parents do not want them either, and I think they will look very carefully at ratios when choosing care for their children. There are other ways of making childcare more affordable while protecting quality and the Government have made a great start with recent announcements about tax relief. The noble Lord, Lord Griffiths of Burry Port, who is not in his place, said that education is a good investment. I agree with him; indeed, I usually do, and today is no exception. But good quality early years education is a particularly good investment, beneficial to the individual and to the economy, and the Government should embrace it. The evidence for this is “sky high”, to quote a Scottish Minister when proposing more Scottish Government investment in the field. Will my noble friend the Minister look kindly on the evidence when the Children and Families Bill comes to your Lordships’ House?