News story

Elizabeth Truss is interviewed by Nursery World magazine

Extracts from Nursery World’s interview with Elizabeth Truss, Minister for Education and Childcare.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

On her impressions of the sector

I obviously met quite a lot of people before I got the job, and it’s an area I’m interested in. I’ve got young children myself.

I think that quality has improved. We’ve seen a growing professionalism in the childcare sector as a whole. A lot of the discussions that I’ve had with providers have been that there is an issue with sustainability. Feedback that I get from parliamentary colleagues is that some providers are struggling.

We know there is also an issue with the extent to which parents can afford childcare. My broad feeling is that it is an industry that has changed, but there are a lot of issues. One of the things I’ve been doing is visiting other countries … we’re all facing similar issues. There’s a growing recognition of the real importance of early years both from the point of view of child development and from women’s/parents’ participation in the labour market.

We know we’re in a more competitive world where the quality of our education is really important to our future prospects as a country and I think that early years is rightly being recognised as a really important part of that.

What I want to do is learn from the successes and failures of others and also look at what’s best in our system. There are some very strong aspects to our system - for example, the Ofsted inspection regime.

I think there’s a lot to work with. I think there’s a great deal of interest in new ideas and innovations. It’s a very interesting time to be doing the job.

On the tensions between the needs of the child and the need to get parents into work

The reality is that parents want what is best for their children. People don’t want to go out to work not being happy that their child is being well looked after and being prepared for the future, and they want to know that the child has the best possible quality care. I think that (the two things) are completely compatible and I think they have to be because we don’t want parents to go out to work at the expense of their child’s development and education at all.

What I want to do is make sure that our system focuses on the really important things, which are the safety of the child and the quality of care that the child is receiving so that our regulatory system and our professional qualifications are focused on those two things rather than other things which don’t contribute.

I want to make things simpler and focus on what is important to parents and what is important to our country as a whole. It’s really important that children receive the best possible early education.

On working mothers

The Resolution Foundation has rightly in my view raised the issue of middle income families and second earners who face a particular squeeze in this country, and I am concerned that we have fewer mothers going out to work now than they do in France and Germany, and, if you look at the 1980s and 1990s, we had more mothers as a proportion.

That’s not to say that I want to force mothers back to work. The Department for Education has done a survey that shows that roughly 50% of mothers have chosen to stay at home and 50% would like to go out to work but the circumstances make it difficult, and one of the main issues is the cost of childcare and the availability.

On funding streams

There’s a confusing number of funding streams. The funding isn’t transparent. [That doesn’t] contribute to those two objectives of quality and safety.

At the moment in our system not enough of the £6bn spent by the government is reaching the frontline. We want as much of that money as possible to be going on high-quality provision. We want providers to have an incentive to make sure that their provision is as high quality as possible.

We’re leaking out funding. Quality costs, but we’re also spending money on things that don’t contribute to quality and that is simply a question of getting better value for the money we spend. We’ve got a problem in that some providers are struggling to stay afloat and at the same time we’re pumping quite a lot of money into the system. So the question for me is, how do we make that work better?

On the free entitlement for 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds

I think simplicity and transparency are really important - to say to providers you are going to be rewarded for hiring high-quality staff, for putting on good staff training and development, for making sure that you are following best possible child development practice. We are going to be judging, or the system is going to be judging, the quality of outcomes and the quality of engagement with the child.

On the forthcoming response to the Nutbrown review of early years and childcare education

We need to make sure that it’s not just the people in the nursery and childcare system who understand what’s happening, but also that parents understand what qualifications mean. It’s back to this point about simplicity and transparency.

I want the early years profession to be a really attractive occupation for people leaving school and for graduates. I want it to be something that people want to go into. I think it’s really important that the profession is as outward-facing as possible, and that people understand what the qualifications are and what they mean.

There [need to be] new expectations around salary levels. There is an issue with pay in particular parts of the sector. I think all these things are linked, so I want to give quite a comprehensive response about the regulatory system, and about what we’re going to do about qualifications as well.

I want to build on the Early Years Professional Status (EYPS). It’s been a positive move and I want to build on it. We’ll also be looking at Ofsted and the way Ofsted measures outcomes. That will all be addressed under our response to the Nutbrown Review.

The other aspect is increasing the level of professional discretion and professionalisation, and that means allowing, where there are not issues of quality and safety, providers more say in how they operate.

I think it’s really important that if we say to people you are a graduate leader, that we allow people to exercise that professional judgement, and that’s what parents want - high quality, trusted people who are properly regulated by Ofsted, making decisions about how they run their nursery, their childminding practice.

On lessons from abroad

If you look at countries such as France and Germany, they are managing to get very high quality. If you speak to French parents about the quality of their 0-3s care, it’s very well regarded. They are managing to get high quality and high affordability and the government funding is more evenly spread across providers. So they are managing to use that government funding better, they allow more discretion, they’ve got very strong quality measures. So my question is, how do we get to that kind of system?

I don’t think we should be defensive. Yes, a lot has been achieved, but in order to get to a new level, and we need to get to a new level both for the sake of children and their development and for the sake of parents who are struggling, we need to be flexible.

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Published 12 November 2012