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The government wants to “relax the ratios” to cut childcare costs, but a petition against the move has garnered over 100,000 signatures. Here’s our explainer, ahead of today’s parliamentary debate.
For Rishi Sunak, the new prime minister, childcare reform is one of many demands in his inbox ahead of his economic statement on 17 November. The UK’s patchy and expensive childcare system has increasingly been under the spotlight this year, as the cost-of-living crisis puts huge strain on families’ finances.
Sunak was pressed on the issue in parliament last week and gave little away. But a parliamentary debate took place today on one of the government’s proposals to cut childcare costs in England – a proposal often referred to as “relaxing the ratios.”
This proposal has always provoked strong reactions. A previous Conservative government floated the idea in 2013 and was met with opposition from nurseries and parents. Today’s debate was in response to a petition against the proposal that has garnered over 107,000 signatures. So, what are childcare ratios and what is the government proposing to do?
Nurseries, childminders, and other early-years childcare providers have mandatory staff-to-child ratios set by the government. Only childcare providers that are registered with Ofsted have to comply (which means that some nannies, for example, are exempt).
In England’s nurseries, the staff-to-child ratios are 1:3 for children under two, 1:4 for two-year-olds, and 1:8 or 1:13 for three-year-olds (there are two options for these ratios depending on the staff’s qualifications). A childminder can look after six children under the age of eight, but there are caps on how many very young children can be in this group.
You can find more details in the government’s early-years statutory framework, which is its rulebook on this issue.
The government wants to relax England’s minimum staff-to-child ratios for two-year-olds from 1:4 to 1:5. They also want to relax rules for childminders so they can take on an extra child under the age of five, if it’s their own child or the sibling of another child in the group.
The government has previously said that loosening adult-to-child ratios would result in fewer staff being needed and therefore lower fees for parents. It has also pointed out that Scotland has a 1:5 ratio for two-year-olds, while some European countries such as France and Norway also have higher ratios for children of similar ages.
Nurseries have repeatedly warned that relaxing ratios would be unsafe for children – and would not reduce fees. Only 13% of childcare providers said they would switch to the new ratios if the rules changed, and only 2% said it would result in lower fees, according to a survey by the Early Years Alliance. Many nurseries are struggling to retain staff and make ends meet, so they would need to absorb any savings back into their businesses.
Nurseries add that relaxing ratios would increase staff workloads, at a time when many staff are leaving their sector due to feeling undervalued. Early-years workers earn just £7.42 an hour on average, less than minimum wage, a 2020 government report found.
Many parents also oppose the move, with 85% saying they don’t want ratios to be relaxed even if it means lower fees, according to a snap poll of 14,000 parents by the campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed this year.
Education experts say it isn’t possible to directly compare England with other countries in terms of ratios, as each country’s overall childcare system is so different.
“While international examples are often used in this debate, to argue for relaxed staff-child ratios, they often present far from accurate comparisons when evaluating English early-years settings,” says Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), a research body. She points out that Scotland’s early-years workforce, for example, is more regulated and better qualified due to a mandatory childcare workforce register.
Direct comparisons are also tricky because some countries’ ratios only refer to the number of qualified educators needed for each group of children. They do not include ancillary staff who carry out essential tasks such as nappy-changing and support during mealtimes. Different countries also favour different styles of early-years childcare – the UK tends towards child-led “free play”, which can require more staff.
The main way for the UK government to bring down families’ childcare bills is to provide more state funding. Campaign groups, trade unions, nurseries, families and academic experts have long been calling for this, especially as the UK spends less public money on childcare than many developed countries.
Successive UK governments have shown little zeal for major childcare reform, instead proposing tweaks to the existing system. But in many countries, state spending on childcare is seen as an investment that helps to boost economic growth, as it enables more parents to work and pay taxes. Good early-years childcare also helps children’s social and educational skills.
“Let’s be clear – the fact that early-years fees are lower in other countries is not a result of looser ratios, but because the governments in these countries have adequately funded their early-years sectors,” says Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance. “We urge the government to listen to the sector and rethink this ill-thought-out, damaging and frankly absurd policy before it does irrecoverable damage to providers and families alike.