Alongside the welcome promise of more money for childcare, we need clearer strategies. Photo: Getty
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Childcare is a new election battleground, so why do none of the parties get it?

Although politicians are focusing on childcare, British parents are still expected to pay a higher price than in much of the rest of the developed world. We need better-quality investment.

We have lost our way on childcare. No party has set out a vision for where we are trying to get as a country. Parties compete on who can invest more without any sense of an overall plan. The result is a fragmented, increasingly complex system that still expects parents to pay a higher price than in much of the rest of the developed world. There are few examples in public services of money alone making things better. It needs to be carefully marshalled to make a difference. A new Resolution Foundation report by leading childcare experts, Kitty Stewart of the LSE and Ludovica Gambaro of the Institute of Education, sets out a path for reform for the UK, offering the best ideas from abroad. Central to getting greater value for the £5.5bn we already invest in childcare as well as future investment is to do what other countries do better and attach tighter strings to public funding.

The first priority for reform has to be improving quality. If we want childcare to have a positive impact on children’s intellectual and social development, it has to be high quality and the best measure of quality is having graduate trained staff. The problem here is that government funding currently makes no allowance for the extra costs of more highly qualified staff. Instead of providing the same per child, per hour funding for the 15 hours of free childcare that the government offers parents of three and four-year-olds and some two-year-olds, regardless of the quality on offer, we should look to the tiered funding approach in New Zealand where higher quality providers receive a higher level of subsidy. Adopting this approach in the UK would create an incentive to hire better qualified staff in a market where competition alone has done little to raise standards. Before extending the free hours as Labour has proposed, they should consider how a more "strings attached" approach could improve the quality on offer.

Another area for reform is the way in which funding supports children from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is strong evidence that providing high quality childcare is more difficult if providers have a large proportion of children from less well-off homes. However, these children benefit disproportionately from high quality childcare. For this reason, the government introduced the early years pupil premium which will give providers an additional 50 pence an hour for each child from a disadvantaged background. But there are no conditions on how that money is spent and whether it is even spent on the child themselves. A better approach would be to follow Berlin’s lead, where the state government offers providers with more than two-fifths of children from migrant families additional funding to be able to employ more staff or specialist staff such as language teachers. If the £50m earmarked for the pupil premium were focused not on individual children but on nurseries with large numbers of disadvantaged children and dedicated to employing graduates, it would be more likely to pay dividends.

On affordability, we could be more like Australia. The UK government’s proposed tax-free childcare scheme will cover 20 per cent of childcare costs up to £10,000 a year. In Australia, families can get up to 50 per cent of their childcare costs paid up to the equivalent of just under £5000. Families in the UK who spend as much as £10,000 on childcare a year tend to be dual earning, professional families on a high income. The median amount spent on childcare in a year is under £2000. Tax-free childcare would do more for those who really need help by offering a higher subsidy up to a lower threshold. Australia also offers more generous support to out of work parents, easing the transition in and out of work that is increasingly a feature of employment for low income families. Put together, the subsidies on offer in Australia mean that all families spend no more than 10 per cent of their net income on childcare, compared to close to  20 per cent for middle income families in the UK.

As the election approaches, it is good to see childcare emerge as an important battleground between the parties. But alongside the welcome promise of more money, we need clearer strategies. Where are we trying to get and how will each party’s reforms get us there? No strategy will be perfect. No single country has achieved an ideal system. But, if new money is to result in better quality, more affordable childcare here, parties have to start demanding more for the public pound.

Vidhya Alakeson is deputy chief executive of The Resolution Foundation

Vidhya Alakeson is deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.