Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 84 - 99)

WEDNESDAY 2 MAY 2001

MS MARGARET HODGE, MBE AND MR ALAN CRANSTON

Chairman

  84. Could I, after a little local difficulty, apologise, Minister, for the delay in starting this session. Can I welcome you again to the Committee, and also Alan Cranston. We are very pleased you could come because, as a former Chairman of the Committee, you will know that this is a very experimental session. When you were Chair you had deliberations and away-days to decide just how we would make the Select Committee more effective, and here you are now as part of that more effective process.We did what we thought was a fairly good report—many of us thought it was a very good report—on the Early Years. We wanted to follow that through. We did not just want to do the report, put it on the shelf, and say, "Didn't we do a good job?" and walk away from it. We wanted to follow through our recommendations. So we have had a process of going back to many of the people that we consulted (and some we did not) to say, "What do you think of the report?". That was the session we had last week. This is the ultimate session in a sense, so now we have got even more ammunition to ask you even more difficult questions as the responsible Minister. We see this as pushing the boundaries a bit in the Select Committee process. Certainly in terms of Early Years this Committee does not intend to walk away from it even after this session. Can I open the questioning and say that what came out of last week's session in terms of an overview was that here is the Government in this first four years, a Labour Government, doing a great deal of good work, putting a large amount of resource into Early Years, but if there was one discordant voice it was the voice of a professor known to you who at the end said (and reiterated in a sense by David Walker in the article in The Guardian yesterday), have we not really missed the opportunity of providing a holistic child care service in this country? It is still very patchy. You may say it has improved and yes, it has improved from a low base. I will just quote what he says: "Some 70 per cent of working women with dependant children make `informal arrangements' for all or part of their childcare. Childcare outside the home is used by 13 per cent of parents all the time and by a further 8 per cent in combination with friends and family." The picture it paints is of a pretty under-developed child care service, not quite joined up and certainly not with the resources that makes it a holistic service. I know that is a big question to start with but it is the biggy that we got from our session last week.

  (Ms Hodge) It is a big question and it is quite a difficult one really. We inherited a legacy of huge diversity which had grown up in response to parental and children's demands and needs. We could have destroyed that legacy or we could, as we chose to do, build on it. The diversity is, unlike, let us say, Sweden who invested massively in the whole early years of child care in the seventies, that a lot of people choose to have their children looked after in the informal sector. Child minding is a big sector in the United Kingdom, not so big elsewhere. We have private, voluntary and statutory providers. We have tried to build a strength out of that diversity to provide more choice and flexibility and I think we are being quite successful on that. I also think that we have just got to work from where we are at; that is the first thing to say. The second is that we have not yet caught up with our European partners, there is no doubt about that. I remember sitting in your chair and questioning the then Permanent Secretary, I think it was, saying, "How on earth can you justify in the United Kingdom only spending two per cent of our education spending on early years and child care in comparison to other countries?"—the next one up in the OECD figure was nine or ten per cent. We started from an incredibly low base and we have had a massive investment. It is difficult to pull out key figures but if you look at nursery education, for example, under us the investment will have doubled from one billion to two billion. By the end of this year we will have got 200,000 new free nursery education places. On the child care my budget has tripled, we have got the new New Opportunities Fund, we have got the Neighbourhood Nurseries, there is a terrific cash investment. What I always say when I am asked about this is, I do not think we can grow any faster. Child care and early years is now the second fastest growing sector in the labour market and that reflects our investment. If we were to grow faster than we are doing we would sacrifice quality at the altar of quantity and I am not prepared to do that.

  85. Does that mean there will not be any ambitious targets in the new Labour Party manifesto on child care?
  (Ms Hodge) There will be lots of ambition in the Labour Party manifesto, and indeed the ambitious targets that we have set ourselves until 2004 are very challenging. We have said we will have a million child care places for 1.6 million children. We have said we will have universal nursery education for all three-year olds by September 2004. We have said we are going to have at least 900 Neighbourhood Nurseries in the most disadvantaged areas to try and close the child care gap and 500 Sure Start programmes, that is doubling, a hundred Early Excellence centres, 145,000 new child minder places. We have pretty ambitious targets already but the ambition will not stop there and I think if a lot of those programmes are successful we will carry on expanding. Can I just say that one of the really great things, if you compare this investment and this Government programme with lots of others, is the dedication of the partnerships and I think the partnerships are a fantastic success story in community capacity building and really developing services around the needs of parents and children in their locality. We are exceeding targets all the time. In nine months of this year we created as many new childcare places as we expected to do next year. Over the coming days I will be announcing the targets for next year and they are in excess of the ones we expect the partnerships to achieve. We have no difficulty spending our money, which is something that has been laid at the door of other programmes. When you talk about the holistic approach, let me just tackle that one and then move on. There has been quite a lot of discussion about is the structure appropriate, is this the best way of delivering the Early Years and child care services for children? Again, we would not necessarily have started from where we are at but within the Department we have now created a unified unit, an Early Years and Child Care Unit. When I first arrived it was under two separate Ministers and they then both came under me. Now we have one unit. I think we have got some really exciting cross-governmental work here. I think Sure Start is a model that we ought to emulate elsewhere, where you have got David Blunkett in charge, Yvette Cooper in another department chairing the working party, me with ministerial responsibility within the DfEE, and that is a good structure with clear accountability for delivering cross-government services. If you went beyond that, because we do think about it, how would you deal with children's health if you had even greater integration? It is an integral part of the Health Service. Although we want the Health Service to be a player in children's services, both for care and education, bringing them in and divorcing them from the rest of the National Health Service would also be very difficult to do and probably would create new tensions and anomalies. We are, I think, grappling with it in a holistic way but it may be a little untidier than some of the academics like to think we can deal with.

  Chairman: Pragmatic but holistic.

Helen Jones

  86. Can we return to the Early Years partnerships because we said in our report that the quality needs to be closely monitored and it is certainly my feeling that while some of them work extremely well others do not. Have you had any examples of problems encountered by the partnership advisers and can you tell us what steps the Department is taking to make sure that the people on the ground who have to deliver the Neighbourhood Nurseries, the Sure Start and so on are actually clear about what we are trying to achieve with these programmes? In my experience they are not always clear, neither the partnerships themselves nor, I have to say, some of the local authority officers who deal with them.
  (Ms Hodge) The partnerships are still young. We set them up in 1997 and they took on child care in 1998 so they have only been running now for two years. We have now got the partnership advisers in place. They have just finished their first visit to all the partnerships and what they report is a mixed bag. Some are doing extremely well, some are all right, some need further support. That is why we have the partnership advisers in place. They will work particularly with those partnerships that are probably not doing as well as others. We have also put in place a training programme for partnerships, spending about half a million pounds on that. I think that will support it. We are trying to do mentoring and it is much more networking between partnerships to try and grow their capacity. I think they are an incredible success story. I think the fact that we have over-achieved on every target is great. It does not mean they always do what we want but we have deliberately gone down the road with this policy of ensuring this is a bottom-up response to local needs. I get frustrated every now and then when a particular authority does not grasp a particular initiative in the way we would like. For example, there have been some issues around how we have expanded the three-year old places where some authorities may not have totally met the needs of the disadvantaged children first, all those sorts of things, but that is local democracy.

  87. Let me take you up on that because it is not local democracy, is it? Who are the partnerships accountable to at the end of the day?
  (Ms Hodge) The partnerships themselves are a pretty representative body. Whenever I go and talk to them I meet 150, 200 local people with all sorts of interests, from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of qualifications and experience coming together and talking about child care. I think they are pretty representative. What we have tried is a steer, not row, philosophy that we have with them. We have set them pretty tough targets. Just to give you an example on quality, they have pretty clear targets about training days for people working on foundation stage Early Learning goals, they have got pretty clear targets about special educational needs, they have got pretty clear targets around expansion. I vet every plan. I am in the middle of doing it now. We send quite a lot back for further information before we agree them. I think they are pretty good and accountable bodies.

  88. Sorry; there is a difference between being representative and being accountable, is there not? Who is accountable for the decision making? If, for example, you have a partnership that is not necessarily putting enough nursery places in the most deprived areas, who is accountable for that decision at the end of the day?
  (Ms Hodge) In those circumstances we may give a conditional approval to their plan, which means that it is not full approval and that gives us a lever with which to try and support them, or we may actually turn down their plan. When we have finished this year's assessment there will probably be a number of conditional approvals at the end of it. We are raising our expectations every year and I think they are responding.

Charlotte Atkins

  89. How do you stop them being dominated by the local education authority? Also, as you know (I have raised this with you before), there is the issue of them meeting in private rather than meeting in public so that parents, local schools, nurseries and so on can attend. What are you doing about that and have you set them targets in terms of meeting in public and therefore at least being a little bit more accountable to the local community?
  (Ms Hodge) Our expectation is that they should meet in public. I do not think we have got a target around it. We do on the other hand in their strategic plans ask them about who their Chair is. We like to see a non-LEA Chair as one way to ensure that they are not dominated by the LEA, and we do ask a series of questions around how representative they are. I think it is a difficult one because, to be absolutely honest, in areas where there tends to be LEA domination there also very often tends to be a less developed and less vocal voluntary sector and private sector, so the two tend to go together.

  90. What about strategy?
  (Ms Hodge) The whole of the strategy has I think unleashed massive interest from the private and voluntary sector. It is amazing when you go to these partnership meetings. They are sitting there talking about an issue that they would not have talked about five years ago and worrying about what to do, how to do it and where to do it, all those sorts of things.

  91. That is why it is so important they should meet in public.
  (Ms Hodge) We would prefer them to meet in public.

Chairman

  92. We had one witness who said they had plans, strategies, but do they have a vision of where they really want to be in five or ten years? Some of them really lift their ambition. Is that something that is missing?
  (Ms Hodge) No. I think we have got a very clear vision. It is one that we share with them and develop with them as—

  93. But that sounds a bit patronising, Minister, does it not? Do we not want these Early Years partnerships that really work to push you?
  (Ms Hodge) To have their own visions?

  94. Yes, to push you.
  (Ms Hodge) I am very happy for them to push us. Interestingly enough, I think they have reached now probably the stage of development where, in the same way that you have got the Local Government Association, there ought probably to be a partnership organisation representative of the partnerships. I think there are some partnerships who are trying to establish that. I would welcome that. They will not agree with us. They will probably cause us some hassle but that is a good dialogue in which we need to engage.

  95. You are suggesting it might be the kiss of death, Minister.
  (Ms Hodge) No, no, I welcome it. I am always keen on those sorts of things.

Mr St Aubyn

  96. Does the Government think that child care is a learned skill primarily or an intuitive one?
  (Ms Hodge) What, working in it?

  97. The actual job of caring for children.
  (Ms Hodge) If I can say as a mum to start with, I think there is nothing more terrifying than coming home with your first bundle of joy. Having had all the endless support during pregnancy, prodded and told what to do, tested and all sorts of advisers round you, you then produce this wonderful thing, come home and you have not a clue and you are petrified. We always presumed that parenting was something which was completely instinctive and I think as a mother I could have done with much more support in the post-natal bit than I got in the ante-natal bit, so I hope a lot of what we are doing is improving that. I also think, in terms of working in child care, that we are learning more and more about how children develop in those early years. We are becoming more knowledgeable about that, not just intellectually but physically, socially, emotionally, all those things, and the more we learn the more we know how you can ensure that a child can be nurtured and supported in those early years in a way which promotes their best development. I think the whole child care area was seen as one in which you did not need a qualification, it did not matter, it was all instinctive, common sense, but we are now recognising that effective training and knowledge and experience help provide a better start in life for kids.

  98. Do you recognise that there are people with intuitive skills in this area as well?
  (Ms Hodge) I think there are people with intuitive skills in all sorts of professions.

  99. The reason why I ask that is that what is worrying about the decline in the number of child minders is that it may be very much the people who have not had professional qualifications but who did have an intuitive skill in looking after children and they may (unintentionally perhaps) be being driven out of this sector by what they see as the increasing professionalisation of it.
  (Ms Hodge) I just do not think that is true. If we look at the issue of child minders, the report that was published yesterday referred to a situation that we had already spotted a year ago; the figures are almost a year out of date. Let us look first at why was there a decline. Child minding is traditionally a low paid job and that comes out again in the research that was published yesterday. As the labour market tightens, and this happens in cycles, other job opportunities emerge, particularly for child minders, and they move into them. I think that is why we have had that decline. We have talked to people like the NCMA and they say that people have moved in the same and related areas but into better paid jobs with progression. However, we have taken three important actions. One, we did the start-up grants where we have put £21 million into that so that a new child minder can get up to £300 for anything: buying the equipment, paying the insurance, paying for the training. In a disadvantaged area the child minder can get up to £600 to start up. That is recognising that child minders do have these additional costs. We have put important money into establishing 450 child minder networks over the next three years and again, once a child minder is in a network, they can then access the nursery education grant for three- and four-year olds. That gives them access to additional resources. We intend that to create 145,000 new child minder places that we talked about. We have introduced two or three weeks ago this new scheme for temporary assistance for child minders so that if they lose a child off their books they can for five weeks get up to £100 a week whilst they recruit a new child to look after so that they do not have this sudden drop in income which was forcing a lot out of child minding. Now, having taken those three measures, interestingly enough, what the NCMA now tell us is that in the last six months their recruitment has literally gone up 100 per cent in comparison with the same time period last year. There were some other interesting things in that useful bit of research yesterday. There is a lack of qualifications in the sector. Twenty one per cent had a qualification. Only 23 per cent thought it was important. As we grow a proper child care infra structure parents will be looking for higher quality child care and I think we have to do all we can to encourage child minders to seek more qualifications. The other interesting thing was that one in four of the child minders who registered as a child minder was not currently child minding, which was worrying. Fifty per cent had vacancies, which was worrying. We do want to grow the child minding cohort because it provides flexibility, particularly important in rural areas, but on the other hand we have to think about the sector. I think the steps we have taken are sensible. What we are doing around training is important and I think we are on the right road, but we have also got to think a little bit about how child minding fits in with the longer term.


 
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