Bishop of Derby highlights role of Church in providing childcare

On 18th March 2015 the Bishop of Derby, Rt Rev Alastair Redfern, spoke in a debate on affordable childcare, in which he focussed on the private, voluntary, and independent sectors. His speech is below, along with the related section of the Government’s response.

Bishop of DerbyThe Lord Bishop of Derby: My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, on chairing the committee, on introducing this debate and on enabling us to have TS Eliot as a frame alongside the pragmatism that we need in looking at this important issue. I rise with some trepidation, because I am perhaps the first speaker who was not a member of the committee, so I speak without that expertise behind me.

It is important that we commend successive Governments on putting early education and childcare, and return to work for parents, high up the agenda in terms of investment. We need to think about how that investment is best directed and what its priorities should be.

As we have heard, the report raises important issues about the private, voluntary and independent sectors—PVI. A concern is expressed, which we have heard from other noble Lords, about the level and quality of the staffing in the PVI sector. It employs fewer graduates and, because of its budgetary constraints, it has lower pay levels. So there is a concern about a sector that the report recognises will continue to be the majority provider of childcare and early education. How this sector is nurtured and given the right opportunities to come up to standard are important issues, as is how what it brings can be recognised even if it is not shown forth in terms of graduate entry and qualified professional staff.

I want to look two aspects of the PVI: one is the role of local authorities and the other is the role of the sector itself. The report recommends that the Government review how local authorities discharge their duties in respect of funding free early education places in the PVI sector. It recognises that many local authorities pay less to PVI settings than they do to the maintained settings—so the setting that is taking the bulk of the strain, especially in needy areas, is underinvested. The report points that out very clearly.

The Childcare Act 2006 requires local authorities in England and Wales to provide sufficient childcare for working parents. This year, only 43% of councils in England have provided enough childcare. Last year, the figure was 54%, so that is quite a dramatic fall in the past year and it represents a trend that is going away from the aspiration of the report and of this debate.

Let me give your Lordships an example from my own background in Derby, where I serve. On Monday, the Derby Telegraph, our local paper, had an article about this issue. The headline was that parents have to pay for childcare that they should be getting free—a nice emotional pitch to get people interested. It showed that the Government give £4.51 per hour for three and four year-olds and £5.09 for two year-olds to local authorities, so the average per hour is £4.47. That is the average of what the Government are investing in local authorities. According to the report, in Derby this year, the city council is giving to school nurseries £3.64, which is well below the average. It is giving to pre-school and private nurseries £3.68 per hour, which again is dramatically below the average. By contrast, to council nurseries, the grant is £5.60 per hour, which is well above the national average. I would be interested if the Minister wanted to comment on that kind of pattern of distribution.

The report in the paper says that the local council will not comment on how the amount that it gives to providers is decided. So I want to flag up some questions for the Minister. Should there not be transparency for government, who are putting in the money, and for electors about the criteria and the policy priorities of local authorities?

Secondly, should local authorities consider childcare provision as part of a wider strategy for local economic development and child poverty reduction? Should it be a main theme of a public strategy? Finally under this heading, is there another way? Should the money go direct to parents and not via local authorities? I would be interested if the Minister had any comment on that route if there is such uneven distribution that seems to penalise the very sector that carries the bulk of the weight of this project and that suffers from underinvestment.

I have a brief comment on the fact that maternal employment, it was found, contributes positively to child development and parental health and well-being. There is a problem of a gap that I am not sure the report highlighted. If we take seriously the point of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, about how in our beginnings are our endings, we need to recognise that gap. I have a daughter, Lizzie, and she now has a daughter, Lila. When Lila was born, my daughter wanted to go back to work. Of course, there is little provision for very small children. Also, obviously, the staffing ratios for very small children are quite high because of the degree of care needed, so it is very expensive. My daughter tells me she paid £1,000 a month for that kind of childcare. She had the kind of job where she could pay that—I do not think it was a hint to me to pay it; she was happy to pay it. However, that clearly disadvantages people who do not earn that kind of money and so will not take an early advantage of continuing their career. We saw amazingly positive benefits in such a small child as Lila being socialised in a nursery environment from a very early age. It seems that if our beginnings are our endings, we have to look at the very beginning—those early stages—and how that can be properly invested in. There are comments in the various manifestos about bringing down the age in which we invest in childcare and early education but it would be interesting if the Minister could comment on what I perceive as a gap in our beginnings.

I will say a little about the wider learning environment in the private, voluntary and independent sector that is so crucial to child development, early education and parental well-being. We probably realise in this House that 60% of Church of England churches offer parent and toddler groups. Those are very important spaces in communities for parents—especially new parents—and small children. They are largely free, run by volunteers and based on commitment from local people and local networking. The one that my granddaughter Lila goes to is actually the hub of the community and all kinds of networking, producing what we would call social capital: goodness and grace in the community. That is a very important investment alongside the individual benefits that young children get in their own learning plans and development. There is a social element to education that feeds and grows community. We need to look at how we invest in that and how it can be encouraged.

Some 76% of Church of England churches run activities in local schools. In quite a needy part of the diocese where I work, in the former mining district of Shirland, we have a thing called the Shine After School Club. Again, that creates a new learning opportunity for parents, children and members of the community which adds enormous value to the state provision. When we look at the PVI sector, we must look at what it offers through not just graduate-level formal learning opportunities that Ofsted can monitor but also those soft things about socialisation, support, play skills, community networking and being out of home for children, mothers and parents in a different environment. Those things are very important for our community well-being as well as the well-being of individual families and people. Home and community are important sites of learning alongside the formal places with a syllabus that can be measured.

I finish with two more questions for the Minister. How can the strategy of the Government and the helpful questions asked by this report encourage local authorities to engage with the PVI sector creatively and to invest in it fairly? How can there be better integration between the measurable benefits of individual progress, early education and childcare and parents getting back into work, and the softer benefits that are so important for the health of society in terms of the work that mother and toddler groups, after-school and all such activities do? That is not the Government’s responsibility, but how can they encourage that to be recognised as a valuable part of the mix for the future?

Baroness Garden of Frognal: […] We are introducing tax-free childcare, which will be accessible to many more families than the current employer-supported childcare scheme. Up to 1.8 million families could benefit by up to £2,000 per child per year, which is also available to self-employed parents. The tax-free childcare extension was mentioned by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Derby and my noble friend Lord Dundee. The point about extending the scope further is that it is passed to relevant ministerial colleagues. It is important to have cross-departmental dialogue on these matters. The right reverend Prelate mentioned giving money directly to parents. We do this through tax credits and/or the new tax-free childcare scheme, which will put money in the pockets of parents, enabling them to choose the childcare that suits them. The right reverend Prelate also spoke of the church community provision which again plays a valuable part in this area.

(via Parliament.uk)