Page last updated at 02:29 GMT, Thursday, 11 December 2008

Unicef child study disputed by UK

The study looked at early years provision in 25 countries

The UK government has complained about a study saying early years childcare and education in England is falling behind that of other developed nations.

A United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) report found England met only five out of 10 benchmarks it considers vital for children's first years.

Unicef examined 25 rich countries and put England middle of the table.

Ministers said it was an unusually poor report containing inaccuracies about several issues, including spending.

Children's Minister Beverley Hughes, who met Unicef UK representatives on Tuesday, has taken the unusual step of writing to them to complain.

Sweden top

In her letter, she says the compilers of the report repeatedly ignored requests from officials in the Department for Children, Schools and Families to meet to discuss their work.

"Overall, we have to conclude that the report is poor, with factual inaccuracies which misrepresent the UK position on childcare and early learning in a number of ways and may well do the same for some of the other countries covered," she says.

She praises Unicef's work but says the report falls short of its usual high standards.

The Unicef study says England met the benchmark of having a national early years plan with priority for the disadvantaged.

And it offers subsidised and regulated childcare services for 25% of children under three, as well as subsidised and accredited early education services for 80% of four-year-olds.

England also met a fourth benchmark of ensuring 80% of all childcare staff were trained and a fifth that 50% of staff in accredited early-education services had a higher education qualification.

But England was failing to meet the study's other minimum requirements:

  • availability of parental leave of one year at 50% of salary
  • minimum staff-to-children ratio for four to five-year-olds
  • 1% of GDP spent on early childhood services (for UK as a whole)
  • child poverty rate less than 10%
  • near-universal outreach of essential child health services

The data in the Unicef report relates only to England except for the UK-wide percentage of GDP spent on early years services, as education and care are the responsibility of the devolved governments in the UK.

Unicef found Sweden to be meeting all 10 benchmarks, while Iceland met nine and Denmark, Finland, France and Norway all met eight.

Bottom of the league table of early years services were Australia, which met two benchmarks, and Canada and Ireland which met just one.

'Best interests'

The Department for Children, Schools and Families said that by its calculations - including expenditure through local authorities and other funding streams - the UK did meet the benchmark of 1% of GDP being spent on early years services.

The department said the compulsory early years foundation stage, which came into force in September, set out staff-to-child ratios which came well within the one adult to 15 children benchmark for four and five-year-olds, and the staff ratio for three and four-year-olds was one adult to eight children.

The UK has universal outreach of essential child health services provided by the NHS, including a health visitor who visited every new mother, the department added, but Unicef had not used measures which showed this directly.

David Bull, executive director of Unicef UK, said: "Despite the government's undoubted commitment, the UK still has three million children living in poverty and higher rates of infant death and low birth weight than many comparable countries.

"High quality childcare is not yet available to all, and parental leave provisions remain inadequate.

"The report is also clear that rich nations have often been guilty of making policies based on economic considerations, not the best interests of the child.

"If the government was really serious about making all policies about children in the best interest of the child, it would bring the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child into our national law."

Shadow families minister Maria Miller said: "At the moment, too many children in the most deprived areas are not accessing high quality childcare which is essential for closing the attainment gap between them and other children.

"Urgent action is needed to ensure the poorest families access high quality pre-school services so the cycle of intergenerational poverty can finally be broken."

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