The hard headed Elizabeth Truss must be wondering what has hit her. Ever since the Resolution Foundation Report, published last October, the word is that the cost of childcare is forcing mothers, unwillingly, out of the work force; that childcare here is more expensive here than in Europe; that maternal employment is so necessary that Government must do something about it – if only to win the women’s vote.
“It’s hardly worth a typical second earner going out to work more than a couple of days a week, because the family will be barely better off,” was Resolution’s charge. Indeed.
Despite the billions of taxes that the Labour Government, and then the Coalition, have churned into working and child tax credits to encourage mums into the workplace (covering 70% of their childcare costs); despite millions more in direct subsidies to the childcare industry, the equation simply won’t add up.
This cost of maternal employment comes impossibly high. Yet mothers here, we are told, pay more for their childcare than anywhere else in Europe.
And Ms Truss has made plain her aim, to focus her help on them, not on the mothers who still wish to stay at home while their infants are young.
She has been nothing if not logical. If childcare is to be more affordable then it must be made cheaper. Other than shelling out Nordic levels of direct subsidies there is but one brutal solution - to deregulate the industry and up the infant carer ratio - to six two year olds per carer.
For she has also discovered that the universal childcare that Nordic countries offer is also made possible by marshalling more kids per carer. Not quite the utopia some thought.
In one round of studio interviews, Truss ripped apart the comforting myth of high quality affordable childcare.
There was nothing cuddly about her debate on the Today programme with Eva Lloyd, a childcare economist from the University of East London. Who would profit from deregulation Lloyd demanded? The nursery provider or the mother? It didn’t matter Truss argued. If such economy of scale leads to higher profit, all well and good. It may lead to better pay rates in turn – or not. As to the commodity in question – the infant and his needs - well, it went unmentioned by both.
“We have been regulating quantity instead of quality,” Truss trilled. But by restricting the new infant carer ratio to carers with Grades 3 in GCSE English and Maths, she assured us, this would be remedied.
Judith Woods’ reaction in the Telegraph was that it would be funny if it wasn’t so serious; it is cuddles children want not academic qualifications. Times columnist Antonia Senior couldn’t stomach Truss’s hard nose approach to childcare either. There is one thing that matters about childcare she said and it is kindness. Indeed.
Nor did I take kindly to the Ministers’ manifest insensitivity to infant needs either. She was however transparent.
It is more than can be said of her critics. It beggars belief that intelligent and educated women like Woods and Senior translate basic literacy and numeracy into unnecessary academic qualifications and pressurised early learning. They should instead worry whether infants are spoken to, let alone read to or understood.
This was the concern of last year’s Nutbrown Childcare Review. Professor Nutbrown confirmed what few face up to - that the reality of childcare is a low skilled, low paid, low status and high staff turnover affair. One witness to her enquiry said that people who looked after animals were better qualified.
It is also the reality that the 78% of all families in England, with children aged under 15 who use some form of childcare, confront. That’s 4,154,000 families and 5,725,000 children, sixty-three per cent of whom have used formal childcare and/or early years provision.
Yet a steady trickle of evidence contradicts the received wisdom and politically correct view that childcare is not harmful to development. This is the heresy that dare not speak its name.
Truss’s bald (uncaring) approach to childcare has proved too close to the truth. It’s touched the national nerve ends and brought parents up short.
“I just don't see how a parent can go out to work when their child is not properly cared for”, one mother emailed me, “a group of toddlers might be fine for a short time with one carer ... but all day? And every working day? This is not family but someone paid to look after infants, all the same age and none off to school. What happens when one turns up with chicken pox, another is teething, in the throes of toddler tantrums or has a full nappy... who looks after them all then? This is an impossible scenario for working mothers to contemplate and quite miserable for their children.”
It is the reality though - already. And there’s the rub. No one thinks a mother of quadruplets should be left to cope on her own, but we have been persuaded this is perfectly feasible for a carer.
Universal childcare was the Labour Party’s mantra and sold as an unfettered ‘good’. The Lib Dems climbed aboard this bandwagon with gusto. Now David Cameron seems persuaded that this is the route to winning the women’s vote he needs.
But he is wrong. It is time for a re think. Childcare is not the key to utopia.
A slow but sure trickle of evidence points to infants being damaged by long hours in early day care and to disturbing parent child relations. Evidence about aggression and non- compliance is emerging; teachers are experiencing new problems of primary classroom discipline which research suggests may be due to the numbers of children previously in day care. Adolescent mental health problems are rising.
What research shows emphatically is that infants with secure attachment ‘histories’ are better adjusted, more skilled at solving problems, seeking assistance and tolerating frustration.
No wonder mothers cry out for child carers, “with compassion, common sense, patience, kindness in abundance and a loving caring and warm personality,” as one ‘mumsnet’ mother put it. No wonder they want them, as she does, “to have enough time to give DS [my dear son] the love and security he needs.”
“I want his nappy changed regularly and as required” she said, “I want him not to be battling with other babies for affection…I want him to be fed and cuddled. I want his tears wiped if he falls and his face wiped after he eats. I want him to be secure, happy and safe.”
What she is describing she wants is, of course, maternal love.
It is something that no level of government subsidy can buy, pretend though politicians and child care warriors may. Elizabeth Truss, at least, is not guilty of that hypocrisy.