The true cost of changing childcare ratios

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Two children in a nursery setting playing with large cotton sheet with a child carer playing too

By Dr Madeleine Findon
School of Education, University of Birmingham 

Recent headlines have revealed that one of the routes the Government is exploring to address the cost-of-living crisis is adjusting childcare ratios for two-year-olds in England. For the reader who is less familiar with the current requirements, adults working with 2-year-olds in England may currently be in charge of 4 children. The latest proposal is to increase this to 5 children per adult. As a former Early Years Professional and current researcher in the leadership in early years education community, I am both horrified and unsurprised by this proposal.

Standard ratios were a relatively late arrival for childcare provision in England: even the Children Act (1989) left such decisions up to Local Authorities. Today, however, along with other statutory requirements, ratios matter because they are understood to impact the extent to which the quality of learning and care can be maintained, though they are often one of the first topics under discussion when debating childcare costs.

The proposal has been met with an outcry across the early years sector, including the launch of a petition to stop the motion. Early years staff are hugely aware of the cost of the service to families, so why are we so against this proposal? For early years providers, there are two key concerns: safety and quality of learning.

Anyone who has cared for more than one child knows that the more there are, the trickier it is to keep an eye on them. I have three little ones, and this is a constant worry for me! I also have some experience of early years care and education abroad, where ratios can be quite different. I have even had to drop my field notes while observing one Catalan nursery class (25 3/4-year-olds to one teacher) to run and catch a child who had escaped from the group.

This is an extreme example, I know, however escapes and accidents have still occurred in England under our own tighter rules, sometimes with fatal consequences. Though the final reports into these cases usually point to a cluster of neglectful activities rather than insufficient staffing, reducing the number of watchful adults does not seem like a good idea.

Given that most providers strive to avoid such awful incidents, the proposal will likely impact the quality of learning experiences offered to children. In England, self-directed play is recognised by the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) curriculum guidance to be how children learn most effectively. Using the Catalan example again, those children were usually confined to static (e.g. desk-based) activities in order to ensure that they were safe and visible to the teacher.

Appreciably, there is a difference between a class of 25 and a group of five (though the latter will be younger). However, monitoring more children means adjusting practices. Additionally, the EYFS states that practitioners must support individual children’s learning and development: increasing numbers reduces opportunities for this. Furthermore, quality is not just a principle, it is an issue of viability for providers: Ofsted’s quality standards will not change.

We don’t yet have evidence of the impact of 1:5 on 2-year-olds. However, much of the sector does not feel it is an experiment they would like to undertake. Could it be worth the risk if the plan really did mean reduced costs? The consensus seems to be that it would have very little real impact. Neil Leitch from the Early Years Alliance makes three important points about this:

  • ratios are not the cause of rising costs: the Government needs to examine what is;
  • many providers will likely maintain their current ratios in order to maintain quality;
  • any savings are likely to be used to recoup pandemic-induced losses, not passed on to families.

This may not be the first time that ratio changes have been touted as a quick fix for rising childcare costs, but I really hope that it will be the last. Our early years system has come a long way to get up to the standard it is today, utilising research and experience to legislate for an approach that is safe and of good quality for the majority of children. We need to think of better solutions: greater government investment in the sector, rates reductions for providers, working with energy firms to reduce costs for the sector. Our children deserve better.

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