The coalition needs to improve the quality of childcare, not just the cost

There is a gulf in the quality of childcare available to parents in prosperous areas and those in deprived areas.

“I don’t need childcare, I have a wife.” This was one of the responses to a recent survey we carried out for our upcoming report on childcare. The government is right to worry about the equality of choice for women when attitudes like this still exist.  

Women’s employment rates since the birth of a child never reach the same level as men’s, even after their children are teenagers.  Yet, increases in female employment have been shown by recent analysis to be the key driver of increases in wealth among low and middle-income families in the last 50 years. Finding the right kind of high quality and affordable childcare, which makes a return to work financially viable, is rightly high on the political agenda as we kick start 2013.

Analysing Ofsted inspection marks from last year, Policy Exchange has today highlighted a gap between the quality of childcare available to parents across the country. Three quarters (77 per cent) of childminders were judged "good" or "outstanding" by Ofsted last year compared to only 61 per cent of childminders working in more deprived areas. This is deeply worrying as we know that high quality early years education improves children’s life chances.  Research has shown that in terms of vocabulary development, the poorest children are the equivalent of 16 months behind those in the highest income families. 

Our report also highlights that only 1 in 10 childminders and just over 1 in 5 daycare staff hold a qualification above A-Level equivalent.  We need to attract more bright graduates into the early years profession, particularly into these deprived areas which are most in need of high quality provision.  We should ensure that professionalization can be reflected in pay rates by prioritising early years education spend.

Despite citing quality as the most important factor in choosing a provider  cost was more important for low-income families. This increases the pressure on some nurseries to provide the cheapest childcare in order to attract parents.  If we want consumer choice to drive improvements, we have to ensure that all consumers, particularly those on low incomes, are genuinely able to make informed decisions based on quality and not cost.  Publishing Local Authority childcare provider quality ratings will allow parents to compare providers in their area alongside Ofsted ratings in order to make a more informed decision and better hold Local Authorities to account. 

Entitlement to free early years education is taken up less by the most disadvantaged families.  Equally, we estimate that 52,000 recipients who already apply for Working Tax Credit (WTC) and are fully eligible for the childcare element do not in fact claim it.  Furthermore, the HMRC have estimated that £265m was claimed erroneously in 2010/11, the majority in error, totalling 16.5 per cent of the total budget.  Simplification of the system for claiming childcare support by introducing online childcare accounts, which the childcare element of WTC, employer vouchers, and any money parents, friends or relatives wanted to set aside for childcare, could be paid into.  As a parent, you would not have to make complicated calculations about whether you are better off with vouchers or tax credits as the applications would be managed through one system and you could instantly access the most financially sensible choice.   

The coalition has an opportunity to address these issues in its response to the Nutbrown Review next week. Let’s hope the quality of childcare is at the top of its agenda.

David Cameron is pictured during a visit to a London Early Years Foundation nursery. Photograph: Getty Images.

Lucy Lee is head of education at Policy Exchange

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.