Can a free market deliver high quality child care?

“High turnover of staff was by far the biggest threat to
sustainability with 84 per cent of day nurseries and 81 per cent of
playgroups”, reported the National Audit Office earlier this year.
High turnover is also a threat to the quality of care in the formal
child care sector because, as recent national studies of parents of
young children have confirmed, trust in and familiarity with the
carer are the two most valued characteristics of care.

Staff turnover rates in child care services are then a good
proxy for quality of care, together with the proportions of the
workforce with relevant experience and qualifications. The
Department for Education and Skills understands this because the
first questions the DfES website advises parents to ask when
visiting a nursery to which they are considering sending their
child, are: “How long have staff been working in this setting?”,
“What training have staff had for the job?” and “What
qualifications do they have?”

It is therefore disappointing that the most recent Ofsted report
does not give any indication of how turnover rates vary between
providers, between different areas or by level of qualifications of
the staff. Every new provider is visited and then, unless there is
a complaint, they will not be visited again by Ofsted for two
years. As the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee asked the
DfES when taking evidence for their enquiry into child care
services: “How do you counter the large turnover in some of these
nurseries and the requirement to maintain training when you have
people coming in with Ofsted’s ability to get in there and
maintain quality control?”

The committee recommended more frequent visits to the providers
with poorer standards and less frequent to those with high
standards. This would reduce the problem but does not remove it
because the issues involved are more fundamental

The BBC programme Nurseries Undercover: The Real Story
screened in August illustrated a number of important issues. First
it showed the dangers arising from treating care like a commodity
and leaving it to the private market. The parents were not involved
in any of these nurseries beyond making an initial visit and taking
and collecting their children. Many parents, anxious to take an
older child to school and to get to work themselves or get home at
the end of a long day are not going to hang around for long to talk
to staff or observe what is happening in the nursery. Research
suggests that the amount of time parents spend in the nursery a
week can be measured in minutes. All parents can do is to remove
their child and if they feel very strongly, complain to Ofsted.
However, by then some damage may have been done – bad care cannot
be replaced like a faulty cooker. Given the importance attached to
continuity of care it is not an easy strategy to adopt, even if
another place can be found immediately.

The second problem arising from using the market to provide
child care relates to regulating standards more generally. In his
classic 1970 study Exit, Voice and Loyalty, Hirschman
looks at the merits of the different forms of regulation possible
in civil society, the state and the market. Within civil society
and its informal associations, social relations are regulated
through trust and loyalty. Historically, childminders maintained
their standards because they were known and trusted in the
neighbourhood. They could not risk getting a bad reputation.

In the case of state-provided child care, parents and others, as
citizens, could hold to account local officials and politicians
responsible for nurseries by voting, pressure group activity, the
media etc. They had a voice. In the market, however, it is the
owner or shareholders to whom managers and staff are accountable
first. Individual parents have no voice – they can only exert
pressure by exiting to something better. Ofsted seems far

The third problem The Real Story programme illustrated
were poor standards resulting from heavy dependence on young,
inexperienced and untrained staff. The Public Accounts Committee
concluded: “A key means of improving the quality is through
training of staff, although the department acknowledges that this
is a problem in a low pay field.”

In the UK, child care staff’s pay puts them in the bottom
decile of the earnings distribution. The DfES aims to get half of
all staff up to at least NVQ level2. This is a large task for there
are 160,000 existing staff needing training to this modest level.
The government has provided more funds, training courses and
apprenticeships but drop out rates are high. Training must also
involve the providers but only a quarter have a training budget,
which is not surprising given that the finances of half of them are
precarious – mainly a result of time-limited funding and
parents’ inability to pay higher fees. New recruits also need
to be supervised by experienced and qualified staff. This also
takes time and resources which many in the private sector are not
able or willing to commit. We all accept that good quality
education costs money but we still haven’t faced up to the
true cost of high quality child care and the pitfalls involved in
relying on the market to provide it.

Hilary Land is emeritus professor and senior research
fellow at the Centre for Family Policy and Child Welfare,
University of Bristol.

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