The Labour Government never tires of telling us how, since coming to power in 1997, it has spent a whopping £21 billion on childcare. It’s an impressive amount of money. But in one sense the claim is not strictly true, as a substantial amount of this £21 billion has come from the New Opportunities Fund, which the Government set up in 1997 to distribute national lottery funds to sports, the arts, heritage, charities and the millennium, with education, health and environmental causes deemed deserving of grants a year later.Also, we don’t hear many – any – Government Ministers and civil servants ever say how many billions of this £21 billion have been squandered and wasted on such ill-judged initiatives as, say, the Neighbourhood Nurseries Initiative. Or the Investors in Children star-rating scheme of 2001, much praised by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. Among many others.
It makes the many early years and childcare professionals more than a tad uncomfortable to hear Government Ministers and officials casually mention the £21 billion when they can turn around and ask, “If that’s so, then why am I still on the minimum wage?”
Childcare is still a low pay and low status sector, despite all of the money that has been poured into it over the past eleven years. So where has the money gone? Not into the pockets of those who care for children, that’s for sure. A good percentage of the money would have been better spent by giving it directly to all of the dedicated childcarers as a thank you for their years of hard work. That would have done more for sector morale than any amount of Government initiatives.
Tax credits and vouchers
Many staff in day nurseries work for the National Minimum Wage – set to rise from £5.52 to £5.73 an hour from October – and their low salaries effectively subsidise the fees of the parents who place their young children there. But the Government points to initiatives such as the childcare element of Child Tax Credit, which meets up to 80 per cent of the childcare costs of those parents on the lowest incomes. Or the childcare voucher scheme, which can save two working parents around £2,400 a year on their registered childcare costs.
Again these sound good on paper. But the Government is coy about the number of families who qualify for the full 80 per cent subsidy in the Child Tax Credit, as it’s relatively few.
As for childcare vouchers, a recent survey found that a whopping two per cent of working parents were claiming them. Perhaps the number is so low because the Government hasn’t exactly gone out of its way to publicise their existence. (Could the fact that the Treasury loses tax and National Insurance revenue under the scheme be the reason?)
Early Years Professional Status
Yet the Government wants to see a highly-qualified, professional childcare workforce. So do most childcarers. But the problem is recruiting good people and keeping them. There’s little or no financial incentive for them to stay once they have achieved Early Years Professional Status (the latest “hoop-jumping” training the Government has developed for the workforce) as they won’t earn any more for all of the extra work they have to put in.
As evidence of what will happen, Sure Start Children’s Centres, which are heavily subsidised by the Government, are able to cherry-pick the top staff from private day nurseries because they can afford to offer salaries as much as double that which the local nurseries can pay.
Although EYPS is equivalent to Qualified Teacher Status, it is unlikely that childcare professionals with EYPS will be able to command pay and conditions equivalent to their teacher counterparts. But dedicated childcare professionals who have worked hard for achieve EYPS may well feel that it should. Of course the Government says that’s not its problem. Even though it should be.
Another issue the Government is ducking is that of nanny registration. Nannies are the largest group of childcarers, and there are estimated to be anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 in the UK , though the lack of registration is why the gap in the estimate figure is so large. Despite their numbers, there has never been the political will to do anything much about registering them.
Yes, there is a Government initiative to register nannies, but it is both costly and cumbersome to any nannies wanting to be registered. Although the scheme has been running for several years, as of 31 December 2007 Ofsted had only 502 nannies registered on its home childcarer scheme in England.
If this Government is serious about children – Every Child Matters is its overriding message – then why do the children of families who choose to keep their children at home matter less than those left with childminders or in day nurseries, pre-schools and playgroups, nursery schools and in reception? Why does it always take a tragedy to get the Government to do something about inequalities and inconsistency?
In 2001 Ofsted took over the registration and regulation of childminders in England. The following year I asked Mike Tomlinson, the then-head of Ofsted, if the Inspectorate would register and regulate of nannies the same way. He told me that the mechanism was in place for Ofsted to do so but it was up to the Government, and if it told Ofsted to do so, then it would. Needless to say, Ofsted hasn’t been told, and nannies are still largely out in the cold, even though they would welcome the recognition of their professionalism that such a move would offer.
What is there to show for £21 billion?
So, £21 billion later, what have we got to show for ourselves in the UK? There’s a much larger and better-regulated childcare sector with aspirations of having a well-trained and more professional workforce (albeit a low-paid one, otherwise the Government couldn’t afford to do what it plans), a much-expanded private nursery sector which has enabled the Government to boast of creating loads more childcare places.
But a key question hanging over from 1997 still hasn’t been addressed: does this Labour Government regard childcare as somewhere to park the children while parents (read mothers) either train or do some low-paid job (topped up by tax credits) or is there a genuine desire to give all children regardless of background the best start in life? The Government insists it’s the latter but its actions still suggest the former. Even £21 billion later.