Ministers announce consultation on staff-to-child ratios

Kathy Oxtoby
Monday, July 4, 2022

A new consultation on staff-to-child ratios In England has been launched by ministers, despite widespread opposition from the early years sector and parents.

Ministers have today (4 July 2022) announced the launch of a consultation on proposed changes to early years ratios, in the face of widespread opposition from the early years sector and parents.

To ‘drive down costs for providers and parents’, the consultation will look at increasing the number of children that can be looked after by each staff member in early years settings.

It will propose changing staff-to-child ratios from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds, ‘giving providers more flexibility in how they run their businesses while maintaining safety and quality of care’, Ministers said.

Ministers said that childcare for children aged 0-2 is ‘the most expensive for providers to deliver, largely given the need for higher supervision levels’.

They said the proposals could potentially eventually reduce the cost of this form of childcare by up to 15 per cent, or up to £40 per week for a family paying £265 per week for care for their two-year-old, if providers adopt the changes and pass all the savings on to parents.

The announcements follow visits by Children’s Minister Will Quince to the Netherlands, Sweden, France and Scotland - whose staff:child ratios for two-year-olds the consultation launched today seeks to mirror.

However, since the proposal was announced earlier this year, plans to allow one member of staff to care for five two-year-olds rather than the current four, have been widely criticised by the early years sector.

Just two per cent of nurseries and pre-schools in an Early Years Alliance survey of 9,000 providers said they believed that parental fees at their setting would lower as a result of changes to ratio rules.  

Parent groups, such as Pregnant Then Screwed, have campaigned against the plans, which they believe will lower the quality of care in settings and result in safeguarding concerns.

And a petition against the proposals to reduce staff-child ratios in early years childcare on the Parliament website, started by Zoe and Lewis Steeper, whose son Oliver died in September, days after he was believed to have choked at nursery, has to date received more than 65,000 signatures.

The consultation is seeking views on proposals to:

  • change the current statutory minimum staff:child ratios in England for 2-year-olds from 1:4 to 1:5;
  • allow childminders to care for a fourth child under the age of five, providing one is either a sibling of another child they care for, or their own child, whilst continuing to only allow childminders to care for a maximum of six children under the age of eight;
  • make the Early Years Foundation Stage statutory framework (EYFS) explicit that ‘adequate supervision’ while children are eating means that children must be in sight and hearing of an adult.

‘Childcare is an integral part of our economy’

Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi said: ‘Every child deserves a great start in life and that means giving families the support they need.  

‘Childcare is an integral part of our economy, and these reforms prove again that this Government is on the side of working families. I’m hugely grateful to the thousands of dedicated early years professionals who provide daily care and education to our youngest children, which is why I am determined to support them by giving them greater flexibility in how they run their services. 

‘This in turn will support thousands of families across the country, helping to develop children’s skills while also supporting parents into work.’

‘Now is not the time to be giving young children less support’

Commenting on the announcement, Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said: ‘From when this was first mooted, the sector has been saying that altering ratios for two-year-olds from 1:4 to 1:5 won’t make any meaningful difference to the cost of childcare for providers or parents. That can only come from the Government paying the full rate for funded childcare places for children under five.

‘We would be interested to know what calculations have been made to arrive at a potential 15 per cent saving.

‘Many children are coming into early years settings with additional needs having been impacted by Covid restrictions. More children are struggling with language acquisition and with their personal, social and emotional development as a result. This is why now is not the time to be giving young children less support.

‘The proposed new ratio would bring England in line with Scotland, although the early years framework in Scotland is very different in terms of qualification levels, staff training and support from their regulators.

‘We are pleased that the minister is consulting with the sector on these proposals - early years staff are best placed to use their professional judgement as they know their children best. The minister also promised us that he would not jeopardise children’s safety or the quality of their early education. We look forward to responding to the consultation and will also encourage our members across England to give their responses too.’

‘Settings that do adopt the new ratios, will drive down quality’

Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, said: 'Given the scale of the challenges facing the early years at the moment, it is beyond frustrating that the Government is wasting its time consulting on relaxing ratios, rather than just admitting that if we want to have affordable, quality, sustainable care and early education in this country, we need to invest substantially more into the sector that we are doing at the moment. 

'Our own research has clearly shown that the proposal to relax ratios for two-year-olds in nurseries and pre-schools from 1:4 to 1:5 will not only fail to lower the cost of early years places, but in any settings that do adopt the new ratios, will drive down quality and worsen the already catastrophic recruitment and retention crisis the sector is already experiencing. 

'Given that data from the parenting group Pregnant then Screwed has also shown that the vast majority of parents wouldn't want this change even if it did save them money, the question is: who exactly is this proposal supposed to benefit - other than politicians who can use the changes to claim to have done something to tackle the "rising cost of childcare"?'

‘Tweaking ratios is not the answer parents want and not the answer children need’

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: ‘This is a pathetic announcement that fails to deliver the ambition families need to tackle spiralling childcare costs.

‘Tweaking ratios is not the answer parents want and not the answer children need.

‘The vast majority of providers have made clear this would make no difference to costs for parents.

‘What’s more, parents have said the current system of tax-free childcare is too complex to use even once explained. The Government is out of ideas and failing children and families alike.’

Government’s calculations ‘fundamentally flawed’

Prior to the launch of the early years ratios consultation, the Alliance dismantled the Government’s £40 a week saving claim.  

The Alliance said the Government’s calculations are based on staff costs, which account for 74 per cent of overall costs in early years settings. Moving from a ratio for 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds would cut staff costs by 20 per cent. 20 per cent x 74 per cent = 15 per cent. The average weekly cost of early years places is £265 and 15 per cent of £265 is £40 - therefore parents could save £40 per week. 

It said the calculation operates on the basis that all nurseries and pre-schools are currently working to a 1:4 ratio at all times, that they will all move to a 1:5 ratios at all times and that the entirety of any savings made would be passed onto parents in the form of lower fees.

The Alliance said this was fundamentally flawed for a number of reasons:

A recent Early Years Alliance survey of over 9,000 early years settings found only 51 per cent of providers delivering places to two-year-olds work to maximum ratios all the time, meaning that around half already have scope to work to more relaxed ratios more often than they currently do, but choose not to. 

The same survey found that only five per cent of nurseries and pre-schools would always/permanently operate to looser ratios if the Government’s proposal went ahead. 

Overall, the survey found that only two per cent of nurseries and pre-schools believe that parental fees at their setting would lower as a result of changes to ratio rules.  

For the Government’s calculation to work, settings would have to only increase their child numbers in ‘ratio-sized amounts’ to move from a 1:4 to a 1:5 ratios. So, for example, if a setting had five members of staff and 20 children, they would have to take on five additional two-year-olds at once to move to a full 1:5 ratio. If they only, for example, took on two extra children (so 22 in total), this would be a ratio of 1:4.4, not 1:5.

The Alliance said the calculations ‘incorrectly’ assume that all settings have the physical space to be able to substantially increase the number of children they care for and educate, within the current legal limits on floor space per child, which the Government has not indicated they are consulting on. 

Children and families minister Will Quince has himself argued that there is no expectation that settings will move to a 1:5 ratio all the time and that the change is unlikely to impact largely on costs. In an interview with Sky News, he said: ‘The ratios change in and of itself is no silver bullet or panacea or magic bullet… it is not going to significantly change costs because what we don’t expect is setting to routinely or religiously go to 1:5. Most doing currently go to 1:4.’

Tax-Free Childcare scheme

As part of a package of childcare measures, the Government is also launching a new £1.2 million campaign to encourage greater take up of £2,000 per year Tax-Free Childcare scheme and the Universal Credit childcare offer.

Ms Tanuku said: ‘We welcome plans to increase take-up of Tax-Free Childcare but the £2.6bn unspent money earmarked for Tax-Free Childcare since it was introduced must be reinvested into childcare. 

‘Universal Credit must include upfront payments for childcare to prevent this being a barrier for parents to be able to start work.’ 

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