Conservative conference: Academic rejects proposals to deregulate childcare sector

By Lauren Higgs

| 11 October 2012

Deregulating the childcare sector and decreasing ratios of staff to children would damage the quality of provision, a leading academic has warned.

Penn argued that proposals to deregulate childcare are ill-advised. Image: Paul Cousans

Helen Penn, professor of early childhood at the University of East London, is currently working on a study into the cost of childcare in England on behalf of the Department for Education (DfE).

Speaking at a Conservative Party Conference fringe event, Penn argued that proposals to cut regulation in the childcare sector or change staff ratios – outlined by new children’s minister Elizabeth Truss before her appointment – would be ill-advised.

Truss set out the plans earlier this year in a paper for the think-tank Centre Forum, which claimed that childcare in Britain fails to provide value for money for either parents or the government.

It recommended adopting a model of childcare regulation and inspection similar to that used in the Netherlands.

But Penn dismissed the plans. “I really want to knock on the head this idea about the Netherlands,” she said. “My colleague who is Dutch has specialised in following the Netherlands’ provision.

“What happened when they deregulated in 2005 was that there was an enormous drop in quality. We should be absolutely clear about that. We have one of the most lightly regulated systems in Europe. Fiddling around with that is not going to change much.”

Penn added that figures on the cost of childcare in England are misleading. “I’ve been doing a study for the DfE which breaks down the OECD family database. In other words, all the figures about how much parents pay for childcare and how much it costs,” she said. 

“The figures that say the cost of childcare is so high are partly an artifice of the data. In other words, the OECD data is calculated on the basis of the cost of two- and three-year-olds having 30 hours a week childcare, after any kind of subsidy to the nursery. But we calculate the figure before tax and benefits.”

June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation, agreed that childcare in the UK should not be deregulated.

“What we need is to address the interpretation of regulation. It’s a bit like health and safety,” she said. “You have a piece of legislation but it can be interpreted in so many ways, because local authorities are the gatekeepers of public money they have their own rules about what makes them feel safe about money they give out.”

O’Sullivan added that parents would not support a change in the ratio of staff to children in childcare settings.

“People only have two hips and these children are small,” she said. “The fact that you’re really qualified doesn’t stop you having to pick them up and look after them. We want really good engaged relationships with children. Why would we reduce the number of staff?”

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