Labour plans to force Commons vote on childcare ratios

The party seeks to set the coalition parties against each other after Clegg warns that relaxing ratios could damage the quality of childcare.

Labour has moved quickly to exploit the coalition split over childcare ratios by announcing plans to trigger a Commons vote on the issue. The party plans to table an amendment to the Children and Families Bill, which will move to Report Stage later this month. 

Earlier today, in response to an urgent question from Labour, childcare minister Liz Truss said that the government was considering responses to its consultation exercise and would "make further announcements in due course" after Nick Clegg warned that relaxing child-to-staff ratios could damage the quality of childcare and fail to achieve savings. On his phone-in show on LBC this morning, Clegg said: "It is not a great ideological thing, it is about getting it right for parents up and down the country. When the last government changed the so-called ratios for three-and four-year-olds, it had almost no effect in reducing the costs for parents whatsoever, so you do need to be led by the evidence and that is what I will continue to be in the debate."

Truss had proposed increasing the number of under-ones each adult can look after from three to four and the number of two-year-olds from four to six. This morning, Clegg sardonically remarked to LBC host Nick Ferrari,  "I would challenge you to spend a morning look after six two-year-olds". 

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said: 

David Cameron and Nick Clegg are creating chaos and confusion on childcare.

Nobody supports the plans to weaken childcare standards. Expert academics have told the Government that these changes would risk child safety and will not reduce costs to parents.

And it’s not just the experts of course. As any parent will tell you, young children are demanding and they need lots of attention, so while a childminder can have the very best qualifications, they still only have one pair of hands.

Labour have been campaigning on this issue for months, warning that the changes would risk the quality of care and even child safety.

David Cameron is presiding over a crisis in childcare. Tax credits have been cut by £1560 and there are 401 fewer Sure Start centres than in 2010. The Government is doing nothing to help helping hard working families with the cost of childcare.

The question now is how the Lib Dems will respond if and when a Commons vote is triggered. The last time Labour tried to use this tactic to divide the coalition, in the case of a mansion tax, Cameron and Clegg responded by tabling their own amendment acknowledging the differences between their parties on the issue, while noting their shared support for the increase in the personal allowance. But judging by Clegg's remarks this morning, they may find it harder to find common ground on childcare. 

Childcare minister Liz Truss said the government would "make further announcements in due course" on childcare ratios.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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As children face a mental health crisis, should schools take the lead in fighting it?

There is a crisis affecting the mental health of England's young people. As Children’s Mental Health Week gets underway, the government must put schools at the heart of mental health services.

Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health condition. Half of these are conduct (behavioural) disorders, while one third are emotional disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression, which often becomes outwardly apparent through self-harm. There was a staggering 52 per cent jump in hospital admissions for children and young people who had self-harmed between 2009 and 2015.

Schools and teachers have consistently reported the scale of the problem since 2009. Last year, over half of teachers reported that more of their pupils experience mental health problems than in the past. But teachers also consistently report how ill-equipped they feel to meet pupils’ mental health needs, and often cite a lack of training, expertise and support from NHS services.

Part of the reason for the increased pressure on schools is that there are now fewer ‘early intervention’ and low-level mental health services based in the community. Cuts to local authority budgets since 2010 have resulted in significant erosion of these services, despite strong evidence of their effectiveness in reducing escalation and crises further down the line. According to the parliamentary Health Select Committee, this has led specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to become inundated with more severe and complex cases that have been allowed to escalate through a lack of early treatment.

This matters.  Allowing the mental health of children and young people to deteriorate to this extent will prevent us from creating a healthy, happy, economically productive society.

So what part should schools play in government’s response?

During the last parliament, the government played down the role of schools in meeting pupils’ mental health and wider emotional needs. Michael Gove, during his tenure as education secretary, made a conscious decision to move away from the Every Child Matters framework, which obliged local authorities to work with schools and health services to improve the ‘physical and mental wellbeing’ of all children in their local area. He argued that schools policy needed to focus more heavily on academic outcomes and educational rigour, and references to children’s wellbeing were removed from the Ofsted framework. This created a false dichotomy between academic standards and pupils’ mental health - why can’t a school promote both?

But since Gove was replaced by Nicky Morgan, a new window of opportunity for meaningful reform has opened. Following her appointment in 2014, Morgan has called on schools to promote resilience and protect pupil’s mental health when problems first arise. The Department for Education has made tentative steps in this direction, publishing advice on counselling in schools and announcing a new pilot scheme to link schools with NHS services.

However, much more needs to be done.

The only way to break the pressures on both mental health services and schools is to reinvest in early intervention services of the kind that local authorities and the NHS have been forced to cut over the last few years. But this time around there should be one major difference – there is a compelling case that services should be based largely inside schools.

There are strong arguments for why schools are best placed to provide mental health services. Schools see young people more than any other service, giving them a unique ability to get to hard-to-reach children and young people and build meaningful relationships with them over time. Studies have shown that children and young people largely prefer to see a counsellor in school rather than in an outside environment, and attendance rates for school-based services such as those provided by the charity Place2Be are often better than those for CAMHS. Young people have reported that for low-level conditions such as stress and anxiety, a clinical NHS setting can sometimes be daunting and off-putting.

There are already examples of innovative schools which combine mental health and wellbeing provision with a strong academic curriculum. For example, School 21 in East London dedicates 2.5 hours per week to wellbeing, creating opportunities for pastoral staff to identify problems as early as possible.

There is a huge opportunity for Nicky Morgan – as well as Labour’s shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger – to call for schools to be placed at the heart of a reconstructed early intervention infrastructure.

This will, though, require a huge cultural shift. Politicians, policymakers, commissioners and school leaders must be brave enough to make the leap in to reimagining schools as providers of health as well as education services.

Craig Thorley is a research fellow at IPPR, where he leads work on mental health. Follow him @craigjthorley