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

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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage