Nat Wei: Five childcare reforms that can deliver growth and ease the cost of living


Lord Wei is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is a co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, and a former government adviser.

While the picture may seem challenging economically currently, and whilst we find ourselves constrained in our ability to drive growth through tax cuts and in limiting public spending, we still have a duty to care for the next generation, and to find innovative ways to do so that will help with future growth.

The Government needs to be congratulated for having quietly killed off the truly awful Schools Bill which was neither going to stimulate growth nor help cut spending.

(Though there are rumours the Department for Education is planning to slip in the same clauses surreptitiously in a future Bill, a civil service tendency also seen elsewhere in government, so watch out Minister!)

Now it’s time to consider much more productive education reforms, and for the Prime Minister to unleash growth and help ordinary people save money by facilitating better access to childcare through innovation.

Deregulation and increasing carer-to-child ratios is one way to do this, reducing the cost of heavy-handed government which now tends to overly monitor schools, caregivers, and nurseries. We certainly need to reduce the fiscal and opportunity cost of anything that distracts those on the front line from doing their jobs well, whether at home or in the community.

But there are also a number of innovative ways the government can, with even more surgical precision, make it easier for young families, and the schools and nurseries supporting them, to raise children well whilst increasing caregiver capacity to work and earn.

Here are five potentially killer ideas to help get the ball rolling…

Enable free childcare for those with three or more children in the Boroughs with the lowest birth rates

It is expensive having children, and for those parts of the country with the lowest birth rate, we ought to take away the cost of childcare as a barrier completely.

By providing free childcare for the largest families in parts of the UK with the lowest population growth, we can help stimulate their local economies and start to turn around our long term population decline, curtailing the need to keep our workforce young through immigration.

We could pay for this by reducing support for larger families in parts of the country proportionately with the healthiest birth rates

Expand child-minding as a sector by reducing bureaucracy

Many give up caring for children professionally because early years is treated as bureaucratically as schools for older children are, despite the job being very different and more sole trade-based.

Regulators ought to have their budgets and pay linked to how much paperwork they create for child-minders and nurseries (an idea for Whitehall generally, perhaps), many of which barely earn enough to keep going, let alone work the unpaid overtime needed to fill in their paperwork – which is reportedly almost never read anyway

Scale up cooperative creches where parents are supervised by highly-trained managers

These should be ideally located alongside co-working spaces, and planning relaxed to enable this in the process. I recall mentioning to Liz Truss when she was an education minister the power of this model which, while not for everyone, is very millennial friendly (do not forget Gen Y parents are often the ones with young children now).

Co-op creches in which parents give one morning or afternoon a week under the supervision of a highly-trained leader is not only much cheaper (three to five times) than full-time childcare, but often the experience for the child is better because of the variety of backgrounds parents can often be from, and their skin in the game, as it were.

If you combine this with locating such co-op creches alongside co-working spaces, then you would have the perfect complement one for the other, helping free up parents both to work and to be near their babies and toddlers. Government should specifically help scale up and replicate the best co-ops, and relax planning and consents for parent co-op creches next to or near co-working spaces and offices

Back a network of supernannies to help certify child-minders, nurseries and creches

This should be twinned with a focus on reducing or minimising the influence of Ofsted and local social care bodies where it is not necessary.

Attachment theory is too little understood in government but drives much of our public spending short to long term, with poorly or insecurely attached people behind a lot of increases in crime, mental health and addiction in our society.

Instead of using Ofsted and other bodies to over-regulate the content of what babies are taught (some of which shouldn’t even be shown to adults, let alone three year olds), or to assume every caregiver, whether professional or natural, is a sex offender, the focus should be on spreading best practice around how to turn out well-attached children who are emotionally balanced, confident and feel loved.

A network of supernannies to help identify parents who do this naturally could help to both scout and attract talent, and coach those parents who need support.

They could also inspect providers, but with a focus on what needs improving. Inspection and intervention in general should be more risk-based with the default being to focus more resources and technology on where the probabilities of abuse are highest, with a much lighter touch where the probabilities are low

Enable renters to become childminders without permission from landlords

My former colleague Brett Wigdortz, founder of Teach First and now founder of the excellent edtech-enabled peer to peer child-minding agency Tiney (aka the “airbnb for child-minding”), has highlighted that child-minders who rent (which is a lot of people) are currently barred from child-minding in their own homes, despite the rest of us often being able to work from home over computers.

Just as we now require landlords and agencies to check passports for residency status, we ought to require landlords to have default exemptions in their leases which state that registered child-minding activity up to a legal limit is allowable, unless the landlord gives specific reasons why they should be exempt (such as the building not being suitable, or due to noise issues).

This would free up many of those not fully in work, or who have retired early, to take up child-minding both to earn more income, but also to free up parents and caregivers to enter the jobs market and contribute to economic growth.

To paraphrase the old adage, you can tell a lot about a society by how it raises its children. With tougher times ahead, we need to both free people up to work more and cope with the cost of childcare, whilst also respecting their desire to have more time with their families.

With a little bit of careful policy surgery we can make early-years care provision a bit less burdensome for all, and a bit more of a propellant to growth – in every sense of the word.

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