Valentine’s Day in Paris. Yep, there I was. Not arm in arm with my beloved, but trudging across the otherwise romantic capital of France visiting nurseries. Part of a group of nursery providers, we had arranged at our own cost to hear directly from the French on how they are successfully able to manage ratios of 1 to 6 babies and 1 to 10 toddlers.
Maybe they are as turbo-charged as we read about. Remember we are still smarting from being told that French Women Don’t Get Fat by Mireille Guiliano and French Children Don’t Throw Food by Pamela Druckerman, or French Children Don’t Talk Back by Catherine Crawford. This is of course nonsense, as we have plenty of French children across all LEYF nurseries and they follow the same patterns of behaviour as any other child; and not all their mothers are a slim size 8.
However, as we crisscrossed a cold and wet Paris to visit nurseries, the real picture emerged: the French were charming and pleasant. Between us we visited a cadre of day care centres made up of social enterprise, public and private nurseries. LEYF already had a good relationship with Mouvement des entrepreneurs sociaux (the French Association for Social Enterprises), and the co-ordinator had arranged a most interesting timetable including meeting the equivalent Head of Early Years for Paris. Very much the Entente Cordiale.
The findings: the French do not like the ratios; it limits their opportunities to educate children under the age of 3 years. The nurseries were spotless and the principle of cleanliness next to godliness rules. Lots of plastic and safety surfaces, both indoors and outside. Strict restrictions operate around creative play: no sand indoors or outdoors; limited water play and limited usage of food in play; for example no spaghetti swamps, or vegetables in the role play area. Some child carers were trying to bathe their babies without water. This is all part of the system they have created and embedded to manage the higher ratios. Despite having access to a large number of support staff, they admitted to struggling with ratios and were left open-mouthed when they found out how we currently operate.
Paris has its own approach and is busy examining best practice examples. Their current objective is introducing non-stereotyped play. They admire the EYFS as setting out good principles of practice. Of course, we met some creative leaders as well as signing up the first European member of the London Network of Men in Childcare.
Fees are much more complex because of the tax and employer subsidies. Parents pay less but that is because the state pays the correct cost of a place. None of your average £3.66 doled out to UK providers! They were looking at rates of between 9 and 11 euros per hour.
Despite the low fees, however, French mothers are up in arms at the moment, as they are short 500,000 places to meet their needs. La Loterie, ca suffit is the call. The French birth rate is one of the highest in Europe and 84% of mothers work. I met some campaigners who demonstrated their fury with Nadine Morano and her 2010 Act, which introduced flexible ratios as a way of putting 100,000 more childcare places into circulation at no cost to the state. The new Government placated parents with a National Consultation which announces its findings this week; an outcome I will be very interested to hear.