Worcester MP Robin Walker spoke this week in the Westminster Hall debate on Early Years Childcare.
The Government has published a consultation – which ran from the 4th of July to the 16th of September - on changing childcare ratios in England, proposing to improve the cost, choice, and availability of childcare.
The consultation was seeking views on the mandatory staff to child ratio for two-year olds in early years settings from 1:4 to 1:5; increasing flexibility for childminders, so they can care for more than the maximum of three children under the age of five “if they are caring for siblings of children they already care for, or if the childminder is caring for their own baby or child”; and making the Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework (EYFS) explicit that “adequate supervision” means children “must be in sight and hearing of an adult” while they are eating or drinking.
The debate also discussed the need for investment in the specialist early years workforce to ensure that we get the right support for those children. Robin addressed the need for identifying special needs and making sure that they get the early support and that the education system as a whole would save enormously from identifying need and making sure that the right supports and therapies are there at the earliest stage. The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists and National Deaf Children’s Society thanked Robin for highlighting the need for investment in the specialist SEND workforce.
Speaking in Westminster Hall, Robin said:
“I was looking at some of the past reports by the Education Committee. In its report on tackling disadvantage in early years it discussed a lack of clarity on progression routes and apprenticeships for the sector and challenged the Government to do more in that space. It talked about the lack of a workforce strategy for early years. I recognise that the Government have invested more in professional development for early years since the report was published, but there is more that can be done, and we need to continue to look at that.
"I know from speaking to early years professionals in my constituency—there are some brilliant people who work in that space, including Alice Bennett, who runs the Worcester Early Years Centre and started off in a fantastic farm-based early years setting just outside my patch in the constituency of my hon. Friend Harriett Baldwin—that they have a passion for driving continuous improvement in their workforce. As we have heard, in an environment in which early years has to compete with local supermarkets raising wages and becoming more competitive by offering flexible hours, retaining those great professionals is a key challenge, and we must make sure that we can reward the early years workforce appropriately."
"The Government have invested more in childcare overall, which is welcome. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that spending on three hours of childcare has doubled since 2009, rising from £1.7 billion to £3.5 billion in real terms. That spending and investment is welcome, but I am concerned about the extent to which that reaches the people who need it most. Responding to the Education Committee’s report in April 2019, the Government said that 72% of eligible two-year-olds were taking up the two-year-old offer, and that that proportion had risen from 58%. That is welcome, but it still means that 28% of the eligible cohort—some of the people most in need of extra support—are not getting it."
“I am inclined to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that it is right that the Government should ask the question about ratios, but we have heard in this debate that there is heavy evidence that the answer may not be changing ratios. It may be looking at other ways to support the sector and to make it more affordable, and at the role that the Government can play in that. I say to the Minister: ask the question but listen to the evidence. Listen to the evidence from the professionals and the people working in early years. Let us make this work for the whole country, for our economy and, most of all, for the children.”
In response to the debate, Minister Claire Coutinho said:
“It is right that the Government should look at the issue of childcare ratios. Ratios were set out in the 1980s, and we are looking at how they work in practice. We are taking evidence. As hon. Members are aware, we have held a consultation, but we have also looked at the impact, and we will set out that evidence alongside the results of our consultation.”
“Safety has to be paramount in what we try to do, but it is also important that we look at the affordability of childcare, and at giving providers flexibility, and making sure that staff feel that their judgment is trusted. In that context, it was right to carry out the consultation, and, of course, we will come forward with the results of that consultation, and the providers’ impact assessments, which we did alongside it.”
For the full transcript of the Westminster Hall debate, please see: