Sarah Steel, Managing director of the Old Station NurseryAfter two years of consulting on the opening of an envelope, I find it amazing that Liz Truss has announced the biggest changes to childcare for ten years without any consultation and against a united voice of opposition from the sector. Under these plans, the ratio of children to child carers would rise from four two-year-olds for every one member of staff to six, while the ratio for children aged up to two will go up from three to four for every one member of staff. My real frustration is the “smoke and mirrors” briefing to the media which leads parents to believe that this is about making childcare more affordable. The whole plan has not been properly thought out. Reducing ratios will not make childcare more affordable, as the Government is also saying that staff must be better trained and better paid. That means any saving on ratios will be passed on to staff salaries, or used to offset the current losses nursery care providers make as a result of too low a rate for the Government-funded spaces for three and four-year-olds.This is not to mention the sheer practicalities of having one member of staff looking after six children aged two – everyone in the sector has been inviting Liz Truss to come and spend a day in their rooms to see for herself how what she is suggesting will work.I’ll be interested to see what comes out of the promised budget announcements. In an ideal world, ministers would be looking at a significant increase in employer childcare vouchers rather than this, which really would make a difference to many working families.There are some welcome points in the announcement: a new qualification for senior practitioners is going to come in, which is the “early years teacher”. This should go some way to address the historical inequality between early years professionals (EYPs) and qualified teacher status (QTS); EYPs were not on a par with QTS, causing bad feeling and a significant pay gap.However, the Government does not make it clear how EYTs will be paid the higher salaries they will naturally demand; this could push up fees, unless there is some subsidy available to support the higher salaries.As a company we introduced a requirement that our staff have the basic qualifications being set out in the report, as we felt that the rigours of delivering the Early Years Foundation Stage required a minimum level of academic qualification. Whatever your academic background, it does not give anyone more laps to sit on, more arms for hugs, or the ability to change six nappies at once!Most of all, I am concerned that the reduction in ratios will lead to a two-tier system: discerning parents who can afford to pay higher fees or feel it is vital, will use nurseries and childminders who pin their colours to the mast by maintaining or exceeding current ratios. Those in most deprived areas, where nurseries are already struggling to survive, will have to embrace lower ratios, but this may be at the cost of quality. I would certainly call on the Government to hold off on these changes until they have taken the time to get the full views of the sector it is proposing to change. Altogether, the current situation is not a satisfactory state of affairs. To use the alarmingly accurate parody provided by “Yes, Minister” I don’t know where Liz Truss’s own Sir Humphrey was when she made these plans, but he was definitely snoozing.
Adam Moss, The Echo’s commisioning editor – and father of two young daughters
It’s my job to find people to write guest columns for the Echo.But when I started searching for a parent to write about childcare, I realised quite quickly that I didn’t need to look much further than the nearest mirror.I’m a father of two and let’s get one thing straight at the outset, I’ve not written this because I’m looking for sympathy. I did choose to have them, after all.However, when I tell someone about the childcare bill I’m facing, their response is usually a grimace and a sharp intake of breath.Let me break it down for you.My eldest is nearly two-and-a-half. My youngest is ten months. And when my wife’s maternity leave comes to an end in about seven weeks, they’ll be going into nursery full-time. The fees will be £41. That’s £41 each. Per day. Which in turn works out as £410 a week, or £1,640 in a four week month and £2,050 in a five week month.Just looking at the numbers is enough to make me hyperventilate. It’s the biggest single payment we’re going to have to shell out every month and it’s going to put, quite frankly, seismic pressure on our household finances.Sure, we have other options. We could look for a child minder, which would be cheaper, but not by enough to make much difference. One of us could give up work, or try to go part-time, but that wouldn’t leave us any better off either. Any other alternatives for us are off the table. (And we sort of want to continue with our current nursery anyway – our eldest has been very happy in the time she’s spent there so far and we’re content that they’re looking after her properly).There are certain things which will take down the bill. The first is the salary sacrifice for childcare vouchers, which is a welcome break and certainly worth looking into for any parent who isn’t doing it already.When my eldest turns three at the end of August, the Government will foot the bill for two of her five days a week at nursery.Still, even with those deductions, it’s going to be a major pain in the wallet until they both start school. So when I heard that Children’s Minister Liz Truss was set to announce a new policy to help parents with the crippling costs of childcare, I pretty much felt I’d be grateful for any help on offer.On the face of it, the change of policy to allow childcarers to look after more children each will cut down the costs for nurseries, which will then be passed onto parents in the form of lower fees, which would be brilliant, so long as it works.The trouble is that I’m not convinced that I will actually see a fall in my bill if nursery nurses are allowed to look after more children.Despite the king’s ransom being deducted from parents’ bank accounts each month, and the fact they pay their staff £6.60 an hour on average, the margins for nurseries are reportedly tight. One in four of them is said to have made a loss last year. Will they really be in a position to pass those savings onto us?I’m not sure I’d still be as happy with our nursery of choice if the person supposed to be caring for our child has more little ones to look after.My two can run me ragged if I’m looking after them alone and even someone with “Supernannyesque” powers of childcare has to admit that they can’t give children the same amount of individual attention if they’ve got six instead of four of them to look after. So, if our nursery does decide to go with the new ratios, and cuts the fees, it seems we’re going to be left with a rather unpleasant choice. We can keep them there and pay less for a lesser service, or carry on paying through the nose because we want to do the best we can for our children. Essentially, we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.It’s often said that being a parent teaches you to compromise, but it seems to me that whatever your circumstances as a parent, when it comes to childcare, you are forced to compromise something, whether that’s money, your job, the quality of care, or the time you spend with your own children. While the changes might help, I’d have preferred a tax break, or a souped-up childcare voucher scheme, or more free days, or for the free days to be given to younger children. But anything like that has been shelved for the time being. Instead either nothing is going to change or I’m going to have make a compromise I could do without.