The coalition's childcare figures don't add up

Without greater long-term investment, the relaxation of ratios is extremely unlikely to lead to the savings promised by ministers.

When the coalition announced its intended relaxation of childcare ratios, one of the central planks of their argument was that it would lead to lower prices for parents. With childcare cost inflation currently running at over twice the rate of inflation, reducing prices is an understandable goal of policy. But many academics and those in the childcare sector were understandably dubious over this claim. Yes, relaxing the number of children each childcare worker can care for may reduce the ‘per-child’ cost to the provider, but it is not at all clear that the gain from this increase in productivity will necessarily flow into lower prices for parents. Perhaps more importantly, it is not clear whether quality of care would improve either. This is concerning given that quality increases were a stated aim of the policy

Last Friday, the Department for Education responded to a freedom of information request, which asked them to show how they came to this conclusion. The DfE’s modelling claims that the increase in ratios could lead to a remarkably large reduction in prices from 12 and up to 28 per cent. Let’s explore some of the assumptions behind this figure:

  • It assumes that childcare providers will actually make use of the larger ratios available to them: It is far from clear that childcare providers even want to increase ratios. Original survey evidence carried out by IPPR found that almost three quarters (74 per cent) of childminders won’t increase the number of children they care for following an increase in ratios. Almost four fifths of this group thinks the increase in ratios will reduce the quality of their services. A similar survey by the National Children’s Bureau, covering the whole of the sector, found that 95 per cent of respondents were concerned about increasing ratios.  If so many providers are not willing to take up the coalition’s offer, the DfE’s modelling is largely redundant.
  • The DfE’s upper estimate of 28 per cent assumes no increase in the pay of most existing workers: In order to make use of the increased ratios for children aged over three, the example nursery used in the DfE’s modelling needs to replace two of its non-graduate staff with two early years graduates. Having paid for their increased salary, the entirety of the extra revenue is given to parents in lower prices. What this means is that the wages of everyone else working in the setting don’t budge, with those looking after children aged two and under asked to care for more children but with no extra pay.
  • The DfE assumes high ratios for younger children but with no increase in the qualifications of their carers: Forthcoming IPPR research shows that while relaxing ratios for over threes may be a sensible idea, higher ratios are problematic for younger children, who require much more intensive care. While one way to mitigate the impact of higher ratios on young children would be to increase the skills of their carers, the modelling assumes that the extra graduates employed focus all of their caring time on over-threes, in order to unlock the higher ratio for that group. So while the higher ratios may lead to lower prices, parents of under threes should understandably be concerned about the resulting impact on quality.
  • The DfE fails to point out that some of the savings may be retained by nurseries to boost profits rather than passed on to parents: Neither the 28 per cent nor the 12 per cent figure imply any channelling of extra revenue into the profits of providers. This is very unlikely to happen because the sector is so unprofitable. Last year over a quarter of British nurseries made a loss. The idea that nurseries will not use new flexibilities to boost their often meagre profits looks a heroic assumption, and has worrying implications for the future stability of the childcare market.

Industry website Nursery World has pointed out several other flaws in the methodology, including the assumptions that there are no empty places in settings, when in fact 20 per cent of places are vacant, and that workers need time to plan and manage delivery.

The coalition clearly thinks that relaxing ratios, combined with tweaking the package of benefits offered to parents to buy childcare, is going to solve the childcare affordability problem affecting families across the countries. But neither are a quick fix. Without more long-term investment in the skills and capacity of the sector to increase places and quality, and reduce prices, the 28 per cent figure announced last week is extremely unlikely to be achieved.

Spencer Thompson is Research Fellow at IPPR

David Cameron during a visit to a London Early Years Foundation nursery on January 11, 2010 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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