Minister should visit Holland to get childcare expansion right


I feel a real sense of deja vu. Proposals in the coalition government's More Great Childcare, published in 2013, were inspired in part by early years provision in France. Now, just two years later, the childcare minister Sam Gyimah has been on a fact-finding tour to Paris for further inspiration and good practice.

There's nothing wrong in looking at how early years and childcare is delivered in other countries. Indeed, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could cherry-pick the best examples of provision? But is there really an offer that suits all - be they children, parents or providers? Childcare is childcare and early years education is what it says on the tin, wouldn't you think, wherever it is delivered? Of course, it's not.

Lessons from elsewhere need to be filtered by knowledge and experience in the UK and an understanding of differences, as well as similarities between countries.

As a long-standing childcare practitioner, policymaker and commentator in the UK, it has been an eye-opener working in the Netherlands over the past year. There, the sector and parents talk mostly about childcare for children aged 0 to 12. The term "early years education" is very rarely used and there is no Dutch equivalent of the Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum.

The key lessons from the Netherlands are three-fold: about school-age childcare, about funding and about focus or purpose.

First, we need to view childcare in the round. Working parents with children at school up to the age of 12 need childcare as much as those aged three and four.

After-school provision, known as BSO, works in the Netherlands, whereas it has never really succeeded in the UK, even though there is a high percentage of Dutch women (60 per cent) who work part time.

Key issues from the Netherlands include the fact that schools often provide the space for the BSO, but work with partners to deliver the provision.

Schools offer favourable rents and parents are able to claim tax relief to cover the cost of the BSO up to the age of 12. Some BSO are co-located within nurseries and the provider offers a pick-up service from the school. As a result, 339,000 children currently use BSO in the Netherlands.

The second key issue concerns funding. All working parents receive the same hourly maximum subsidy for childcare (aged 0 to 12 years) of EUR6.82 (which is approximately £5.09). This makes it easier for providers of early years and childcare to set fees and to budget. There is no regional variation on this subsidy as currently happens with the free entitlement in the UK.

While staff-to-child ratios are lower in the Netherlands (therefore making childcare cheaper to deliver), quality is also often lower. No early years curriculum and inspection is done at a local municipal level. It is the norm for Dutch providers of childcare to develop their own curriculum, which means that quality is piecemeal.

Childcare is used widely as a term, rather than early years education and care, and therefore the value placed on quality is not as high as in the UK.

Finally and fundamentally, we have to be clear about the purpose of childcare. Is it a tool of economic policy that enables parents, particularly women, to work? Or is it about giving children a good start in life?

It is, of course, about both. And that's why public funding is central to a sustainable childcare system that benefits all children and families.

In the Netherlands, the emphasis has been on providing care for work rather than preparing the child for school and for life, which is definitely a shortcoming.

Unfortunately, responsibility for early years and childcare straddles several government departments in the Netherlands. It would be of great benefit if the Department for Education would take sole responsibility back home.

With the British government embarking on its ambitious proposals to deliver 30 hours a week of free childcare for working parents with three and four-year-olds, it is crucial that we get this expansion right to make it sustainable. It is also critical that the tax-free childcare measures delayed until 2017 are targeted fairly to benefit all parents.

So Mr Gyimah, here is another invitation.

As head of smallsteps, I warmly invite you to visit the Netherlands - to see some examples of great childcare practice across the age range, and also to learn some lessons on what not to do.

It's not all Double Dutch and it may complement your French lessons.

Denise Burke is chief executive of smallsteps, the largest provider of childcare for children aged 0-12 in the Netherlands

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