Government confirms early years ratio flexibility for Covid staff absences

Kathy Oxtoby
Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Early years settings under pressure from staff absences due to Covid can relax their ratios in line with the EYFS, the Department of Education has confirmed, as cases of the virus in early years settings more than doubles.

Early years settings facing staff absences because of Covid have been told they can relax their ratios, the Department for Education has confirmed.

The move is in recognition that early years settings are under significant pressure because of the Omicron variant, which has resulted in an increase in staff absences.

It follows the Government’s latest figures on Covid-19 notifications by early years settings to Ofsted, which more than doubled in the two weeks between 6 and 20 December.


An ‘exceptional circumstance’

The EYFS already includes the option for settings to relax their ratios in 'exceptional circumstances'. However, this is the first time that the Government has explicitly stated that it believes the current situation with Covid to be an ‘exceptional circumstance’ on which basis the ratio requirements in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework can temporarily be changed.

The EYFS already has provision for exceptions to ratios to be made in exceptional circumstances. Paragraph 3.31 states: ‘Exceptionally, and where the quality of care and safety and security of children is maintained, changes to the ratios may be made.’

However, the DfE’s announcement will offer reassurance to nurseries and settings that might have been reluctant to relax ratios because of concerns, such as having to justify their decision during an Ofsted inspection.

The DfE will be updating guidance to clarify that existing flexibilities can be used, EYE understands. The DfE stated: ‘It remains a priority to continue providing face to face education and childcare, but we know that Covid-19 continues to put early years settings under significant pressure, particularly in relation to workforce absence. 

‘Government considers Covid-19 to be an exceptional circumstance in which the staff-to-child ratios set out in the EYFS can temporarily be changed if necessary, for example to respond to Covid-related workforce absences. This relates to paragraph 3.31 in the EYFS. 

‘In some cases, providers may choose to respond to staff and child absences by temporarily mixing age groups of children who would otherwise be educated or cared for separately. Ratios should be guided by all relevant requirements and by the needs of individual children within the group. For the purposes of meeting EYFS ratio and qualification requirements, all staff educating or caring for a mixed age group of children can be considered "available to work directly with" all the children who have been grouped together.  

‘In all circumstances, settings remain responsible for maintaining the quality of care, safety and security of children.’

The DfE has also launched a new weekly 'pulse' survey to obtain a greater understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on both child absences and workforce in early years settings.

It follows a similar survey launched by the National Day Nurseries Association on Monday [10 January 2022].


Early years workforce ‘under extreme pressure’

Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance said: ‘The EYFS already allows for temporary exceptions to ratios rules in exceptional circumstances, and in light of the extreme challenges that many settings are facing as a result of the Omicron variant, we welcome clarification that the Government does consider the pandemic to be an exceptional circumstance.

‘That is no doubt, however, that the safety and wellbeing of all children attending early years settings must always be a priority, and so it is critical that any providers who opt to use this flexibility do so with the utmost care and caution, with any temporary changes underpinned by robust risk assessments.

‘Of course, with the early years workforce already under extreme pressure, moving to a situation where already-stretched staff teams are expected to look after a greater number of children is not a long-term solution.'

Mr Leitch added: 'While this change may go some way to helping settings cope with the acute problems they are now facing, we cannot forget that the reason the current challenges are so severe is because our sector went into this pandemic in an incredibly precarious position. 

‘Years of poor pay, little support and even less recognition have led to a recruitment and retention crisis which has forced many settings to operate with much fewer staff that they otherwise might. Ultimately these issues must be addressed if we are to ensure that the early years is not put in a similarly vulnerable position in the future.’


‘Urgent support’ needed

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said: ‘The additional flexibility being given to nurseries and early years settings will be important as many are facing daily challenges as to how they can staff their rooms.

‘Nurseries have been managing how they deliver the best quality care for our youngest children safely throughout the pandemic. They are best placed to understand the risks and needs for their own settings.

‘However, we know that this situation is far from ideal. Staff absences will continue to be a major challenge for childcare providers while the numbers of Covid cases remain so high, on top of the chronic recruitment crisis which has been blighting the sector for years. 

‘We are calling for the urgent support this vital sector needs in order to continue supporting children and families.’


Latest figures on Covid-19 notifications

The Government’s latest figures on Covid-19 notifications by early years settings to Ofsted, show that the inspectorate received 3,697 reports of Covid-19 in settings on 20 December, up from 2,935 for the week of 13 December, and 1,601 for the week of 6 December.

The data is much higher than last winter’s peak of 2,357 reports in a week on the 8 January 2021.

Unlike older children and adults, there is currently no requirement for under-fives to isolate or take daily lateral flow tests if they have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive with Covid.


‘Huge disruption’ for parents, employers and young children

Mr Leitch said: ‘Given that there is no requirement for under-fives to isolate or take daily lateral flow tests if they have been in close contact with a positive Covid case, many in the early years are understandably deeply concerned about their ability to protect themselves, their colleagues and their loved ones from the virus, especially given that those who ask children to stay home in that instance could face lost fees and funding as a result.

‘There has been much discussion on the need to safeguard schools from this latest Covid-19 wave, but ignoring the needs of the early years sector will cause huge disruption for parents, employers and, of course, young children as well.

‘With the end of this crisis still seemingly a long way off, the Government must immediately set out what it plans to do to ensure that early years providers are able to remain both safe and financially sustainable through this outbreak and beyond.’

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said: ‘NDNA is urgently collecting the latest data to show us the current trends week on week so we can ensure the Government understands the pressures that childcare providers are under. We will use this up-to-date evidence to make the strong case that the sector needs urgent support.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said: ‘We have provided extensive guidance for the early years workforce on the measures to take to reduce the spread of Covid-19, as well as significant financial support to protect providers from the impact of the pandemic. Providers can use existing flexibilities set out in the Early Years Statutory Framework to manage short-term workforce pressures, so long as children continue to be cared for safely.

‘Early years settings are eligible to apply for the 7,000 air cleaning units we are providing to improve ventilation and nurseries receive rapid lateral flow test kits via the separate education delivery routes. Both nurseries and childminders operating in groups of four or more were also included in the roll out of CO2 monitors last term.’

  • The DfE weekly survey is completely anonymous and should take around five minutes. It will run during January and February. The first survey is available here
  • Early years settings can fill in the NDNA’s quick survey on staff and child absences here 


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