Nadhim Zahawi is clearly proud of the government’s new proposals to overhaul the UK’s childcare system that were announced on Monday 4th July, telling me the issue of affordable childcare is a topic ‘very close to my heart’. Plans being discussed include relaxing staff-child ratios, taking steps to make childminding easier to get into, in a bid to encourage more people into what Zahawi says is a cheaper and often overlooked form of childcare, and an awareness drive to increase take-up of schemes like Tax-Free Childcare and Universal Credit.
As regular followers of The Juggle will know, it’s also topic close to our hearts. Over 113,000 of you signed the petition we launched with Pregnant Then Screwed last year calling on the government to hold an independent review into the UK’s spiralling childcares. Something they said no to, on International Women’s Day 2022. Pregnant Then Screwed CEO and founder, Joeli Brearley, told Grazia ‘parents across the country will feel failed again’ following these latest plans.
So, is this latest announcement a result of our campaign? ‘I used to be the Minister for Children and Families under Teresa May, so this is something very close to my heart,' says Zahawi. 'And Grazia has been leading the charge on addressing the issue of cost for some time now. Parents in every constituency in this country are also asking what’s going on? We have some of the most expensive childcare in the OECD. As a result, we’re now at the beginning of that journey. The first step is what I’ve announced. We’re focusing on reminding parents what they’re entitled to, and we’re currently working on a big campaign with the Department for Work and Pensions to make sure we get the information out there, making it easier for parents earning up to £100,000 to understand.'
The most heavily criticised part of the proposed plan involves increasing staff-to-child ratios from 1:4 to 1:5 for 2-year-olds, which the government claim will reduce the cost of childcare. Campaigners, however, argue that not only would this lead to a reduction in the quality of care, it would also make the job even more stressful for a sector that’s already over worked and under paid, and currently in the midst of a recruitment and retainment crisis. A new report from the Early Years Alliance called Breaking Point: The impact of recruitment and retention challenges in early years sector in England recently found over 80% of nurseries find it difficult to recruit staff, almost half (49%) have had to stop taking on new children due to lack of staff, with a third saying they were considering leaving the sector altogether.
When I put this to Zahawi he says, ‘One, I’m consulting on the ratios. I’m listening to what parents and providers are saying. Two, it’s only right we also look at what other countries do. I had Will Quince [the Children’s minister] visit Sweden and France, and closer to home, Scotland, to see how they do it. It’s important we challenge ourselves.’
But while some European countries do have higher staff-child ratios than the UK, their early years sector are often vastly different, with better funding and staff qualified to degree or master’s level, with salaries reflecting that. ‘You’re exactly right,’ he says, when I point this out, before adding: ‘Safety is paramount. I apply myself on being an evidence-led secretary of state and it’s about always remembering that delivering high quality childcare is what matters. Yes, we have expensive childcare in the UK, but it’s also high quality. We don’t want to lose that quality and we’re doing everything we can.’
On the subject of childminders, Zahawi says he wants to see an uptake in the number of families using childminders, which he says are often cheaper than nurseries, and ‘I want to see more people becoming childminders. We want to help grow the market, and find out how we can help things like the registration fees, and not getting inspected by Ofsted every five minutes, which we know lots of them worry about. Lots of parents want to become childminders but their own children add to the ratios. We want to work with all these things.’
So, are these plans the first step in our call for an independent review into the cost of childcare? Since our campaign was launched, the situation has if anything worsened, with a recent survey by Pregnant Then Screwed and Mumsnet finding 43% of mums are considering leaving their jobs due to the cost of childcare, with 62% saying it’s now the same if not more than their rent or mortgage. ‘My view is I want to get on and implement a load of stuff,’ says Zahawi. ‘We listened to Grazia, we listened to your readers, and to parents across the country. And we’re now moving at speed to deliver on the ground. We want a childcare market that works for UK parents.’