A few observations on today’s unhelpfully polarised row about child care and then an idea of my own….
Thanks, in part, to her arguments being pulled apart by think tanks and lobby groups, children's minister Liz Truss has actually moved quite a long way from her earlier back bench pronouncements on pre-school education. In those she had argued a form of market fundamentalism whereby removing all regulations would lead to a flourishing of innovation and a sharp decline in charges. Her tone now is more balanced and thoughtful and, in fact, just as she lightens one area of regulation – on ratios – she is tightening another – on qualifications.
Assuming that: (a) almost all parents are very focussed on their children’s welfare; (b) generally it is better for infants from deprived backgrounds to be in regulated child care than at home; (c) in the context of austerity and a squeeze on living standards tough choices have to be made, it is probably better that the state should regulate something which it is hard for the public to make their own judgement about (qualifications of nursery workers and educational quality of provision) than something which it isn’t (the ratio of adults to children)
In opposing the proposals the Opposition is in danger of falling further into a message and policy mire. In general terms Labour argues that it will have to maintain spending limits at a level pretty close to that being imposed by the Coalition, but on specific issue after specific issue the implication from shadow ministers is that it can avoid unpopular, cost-driven, Government decisions. It may well be – and ippr and the Resolution Foundation both argue this – that increasing funding of childcare should be the top priority for an incoming Government but while the think tanks are explicit about where the money could come, not only have Labour ministers identified many other priorities they are also more coy about measures to save money or raise revenues.
As for my suggestion, it is this. The need for care – whether formal or informal – is bound to rise. Also, notwithstanding some clever Japanese house robots, the relative costs of care will rise as it is inherently a ‘high touch’ activity with only incremental scope for productivity improvements. So, how about making caring a core part of the school curriculum and as part of this developing a new norm that all young people undertake a substantial work placement (say, 100 hours) in a caring setting at some point in their 14-19 education. These placements would not be paid but they would be accredited and might earn some rebate on future student loans. Importantly, all pupils and not just those with aspirations to work in care settings would undertake the placements.
This way young people get a powerful practical experience which will be relevant to them either as workers or simply as good family members and citizens
The status of caring is raised as every young person gets to understand how important, challenging and rewarding it is.
In both nurseries and settings for elders there are more young people which – if properly structured – will lead to a higher quality and more positive experience for children and older people