Early years sector fears change in staff-to-child ratios

By Gabriella Jozwiak

| 10 December 2012

Early years professionals are braced for an imminent government announcement on changes to child and staff ratios in childcare settings.

Many early years professionals say they will keep current ratios even if regulations are relaxed. Image: David McCullough

The issue of childcare funding was absent from last week’s autumn statement, while the Chancellor heaped praise on the Department for Education’s cost-cutting measures.

With the government’s childcare commission expected to report in a matter of days, practitioners believe government will not allocate additional money towards cutting childcare costs, but will instead introduce a ratio change, enabling childcarers to be paid extra for looking after more children.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said his suspicions were fuelled by comments made by Ofsted’s national director for education, Sue Gregory, at the body’s annual early years lecture earlier this month.

“Historically, politically, Ofsted has sat on the fence, yet in this instance Sue Gregory went as far as saying there’s not enough money in the system,” said Leitch.

“She said the workforce must be trained to a greater degree and that we must pay decent salaries. It concerned me that it might be a softening up for endorsing a reduction in staff ratios.

“All the aspirations are coming forward in terms of improving quality, staff qualifications and higher salaries, but that has to be funded somewhere and when the discussion got to the part where we were talking about staff ratios, that was left open.”

Regarding childcare minister Elizabeth Truss's previously-expressed support for increasing ratios, London Early Years Foundation chief executive June O’Sullivan said: “She’s obsessing on the quality of childcare and the importance of graduates, and she’s misusing a lot of European evidence which is discredited.”

Truss has proposed replicating childcare ratios used in the Netherlands, where childminders can care for five children under the age of five or three babies under the age of one, compared to three and one respectively in the UK.

“I’m wondering if she’ll try and put two and two together: more children to adults, but an adult of more qualification, would mean there’s more money in the system to pay the qualified adult more,” O’Sullivan said.

Leitch and O’Sullivan argued that if the government does decide to go down this route, it would not achieve the reduction in childcare costs that the commission set out to address, since the majority of practitioners would simply choose not to change their staff-to-children ratios.

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