Why playing isn’t paying

Helen Gration, watching Isabella Lane, three, playing at the Montessori Nursery at Strensall near York.
Helen Gration, watching Isabella Lane, three, playing at the Montessori Nursery at Strensall near York.
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The cost of childcare has long been a hot political topic. Jayne Dawson meets one nursery owner who says there is a crisis looming – and is taking her case to the Government.

There is no doubt that there has been a revolution in childcare in recent years.

From a poor start, where parents had to cripple themselves financially to pay for their children to be looked after while they worked, there is now help.

All parents of children aged three to five can have 15 hours of free childcare a week. And the scheme is being extended – 40 per cent of two-year-olds are now eligible too. And if the Labour Party is elected in May, it has pledged to increase the number of free childcare hours to 25 per week. So that’s a result. The days when the attitude was “your child, your problem” are gone.

Now, both major political parties believe it is in everyone’s interests for parents to be helped, with only the number of hours being debated. Granted, they are not helped to the same extent as in some other European nations, like Sweden or France, but there is some assistance.

Yet there is trouble in paradise, for the body that represents nurseries, the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), says this situation is in fact creating a crisis in childcare.

And one Yorkshire nursery owner believes so passionately that a huge problem is looming that she is travelling down to London tomorrow to argue her case with the childcare minister. Helen Gration, who is married to Look North presenter Harry Gration, owns York Montessori Nursery Company which has two nurseries in York and is about to open a third in Leeds.

She believes the present set-up is forcing a two-tier system of childcare, with excellent care for those who can afford it and worse care for those who can’t. She describes it as “a dangerous experiment”.

The problem is those “free” hours, which of course are not free at all. Councils give nurseries cash to cover them, and both Helen and the NDNA say they are not giving enough. England’s 18,000 nurseries, providing childcare and education for almost a million children, are seriously underfunded, they believe.

“Free childcare for parents is a brilliant thing, I would like the number of hours to be extended, but we have to be realistic and fund them at a viable rate or children will suffer,” says Helen. “What is happening now, with government talking about free childcare, is basically a sales trick.”

The rate per hour given to nurseries is not standard, it varies from one local authority to another. In York, where Helen runs nurseries in Strensall and Fulford, the rate is £3.38 per hour, whereas in Bradford it is £5.23 and in Leeds it’s £4.14. These are the rates for private, voluntary and independent childcare, which offers the bulk of places for children aged under five. But to make matters even more confusing, there are different rates again for maintained local authority nursery schools and primary school places.

“It isn’t enough. There are places where a cup of coffee costs that much. At the very least the amount needs to be standardised, so that every nursery receives the same,” adds Helen. She believes that, realistically, the minimum rate should be £4.50 per hour. “I am a businesswoman but I do not run my nurseries to make a profit, any money I have left over goes into a development pot to maintain my nurseries. I am passionately committed to nursery care, I see it as the basis of everything.

“Children are at their most receptive to learning up to the age of six, if they become self-confident and able at that time they can go on to achieve great things, and they will build our communities of the future. But their care at that stage needs to be excellent. At the beginning and end of our lives we need the most help. My argument is not so much an economic one as a social one.

“A two-tier system will definitely develop because the way nurseries try to cope is by charging more for additional hours, above those 15 hours, to recoup their costs. That puts a burden on parents who work full time. And in nurseries where not many parents are working full time then that option is not available. The care they will be able to offer will not be as good. The Government wants parents to work, and parents need to work, but life is still being made difficult for them.”

Helen, who has eleven-year-old twin boys, opened her first nursery when her sons were aged three. Before her children were born she had a high-flying career as a television news director for the BBC and has brought the skill, determination and professionalism that enabled her to succeed in that world to her career as a nursery owner.

“I knew I wanted children but eventually I had to have IVF which was difficult but I got through it by concentrating on the process and being rather businesslike. Once my boys, Harvey and Harrison, were born, I did a bit more work for the BBC but I realised I needed something else that fitted in more with raising children because time with my children is my number one priority, and having them made me realise how important those early years are. Now I work hard in my job but once those hours are over I am a mum.”

Helen runs Montessori nurseries, originally set up by an Italian woman to help slum children and now operating worldwide, and she charges £45 per day. Her nurseries are classified as Outstanding by Ofsted. The new one in Leeds will have places for around 70 children.

“My staff are all well trained, some of them have post-graduate qualifications in early years teaching, others bring years of experience and I want to pay them salaries that reflect their skill, but the present system is making that difficult.”

Helen will meet Sam Gymiah, the Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, with MP Nigel Adams, who represents Selby. “I will be telling him what life is like for nurseries, which is very different from sitting behind a desk creating policies. I need to explain how important it is to get those policies right. It is easy to get caught up in policies and budgets but we are dealing with human beings in creation here.”

If the cash given to nurseries is not increased Helen thinks that children and parents will also suffer from a lack of choice. At a time when the educational choices for older children are, in theory, ever wider there will be less variety for young children. “Not every child needs the same experience. What suits one child will not suit another,” she adds.

“But if we carry on like this in the end only schools will be able to offer affordable childcare for children aged under five – because they already have the infrastructure in place. And only affluent parents will be able to afford anything else.

“Do we really want most of our children to be in a school environment, following a school curriculum, from the ages of two to 18, and to have experienced nothing else in their lives? Children deserve outstanding care, regardless of their background.”