Funds for child care must meet ambitions

    The consultation period on the government’s 10-year strategy for
    child care is about to close. The aim of the strategy is, of
    course, admirable: “To ensure that every child gets the best start
    in life.”

    A chief concern is the modesty of its budget compared with the
    scale of the strategy’s aspirations. For instance, only £285m
    has been allocated to extend maternity leave to nine months.

    About 700,000 adults become parents each year. According to
    calculations by the child care charity The Daycare Trust, the
    budget allows for only 200,000 – under 30 per cent – to receive
    maternity pay. And only £155m extra has been allocated in
    2007-8 to improve child care quality and sustainability.

    At present, the child care workforce, very poorly qualified if
    qualified at all, numbers 250,000. The average salary for teachers
    is £27,000. A child care worker receives about £12,000.
    That wage differential will have to be narrowed. More graduates and
    men (even male graduates) must be attracted into the child care
    profession and its status raised – but how will that be possible on
    a slim “transformation” budget of £500 per person?

    The government has pledged 3,500 children’s centres. The country
    has 15,700 primary schools, five times the number of children’s
    centres proposed. We will have one children’s centre for 800
    children under five. Honourable intentions, but does this add up to
    universal provision?

    Unless children’s centres are universal, there is a risk that
    they will become identified only with “problem” or high need
    families – failing to achieve the kind of mix and parental
    involvement that benefits all children and are important to their
    continued success .

    The government’s response to many of these questions is that the
    strategy is a long-term effort. But, as the example of New Zealand
    indicates, a clear goal is vital as is a commitment to stepping up
    investment significantly, year on year – before a squeeze on public
    expenditure makes that impossible.

    In New Zealand, the aim is to have a 60 per cent graduate
    workforce by 2015 and reward providers who do improve their
    professionalism. In the UK, the 10-year strategy indicates that,
    gradually over the first few years, 0.1 per cent of GDP will be
    spent on child care and early years education. That’s a very long
    way from the 2 per cent of GDP invested in Scandinavia and it is
    far from enough to buy the best start in life for every child.


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