International report sets England’s childcare in context

A report by Ofsted compares childcare provision internationally, looking at affordability, availability, staffing shortages and educational provision.

Child playing with blocks at nursery


Only 39% of under threes in England are in early years provision, according to an international study by Ofsted.

The number is lower than in European countries such as Denmark [63%], Iceland [61%] and Luxembourg [61%].

The international report by Ofsted finds many countries have introduced measures to increase participation in early years provision, with many targeting specific groups, such as children from low income families.

It finds that children in England also spend far fewer hours per week in early years provision than the average across Europe, although it says children who spend longer in early years provision have better educational outcomes later on and that high-quality early years provision particularly benefits children from low-income backgrounds.

A major issue in England is expense.  The report acknowledges that England, and the wider UK, has some of the most expensive early years provision in the OECD. It says in most European countries fees are regulated, unlike in England. Some countries place a specific limit on fees, or the limit may be a proportion of a family’s income or setting’s costs. It cites Norway where kindergarten fees are limited to 6% of a household’s income, and Denmark where the income from fees cannot be more than 25% of a setting’s estimated gross operating cost.

Availability of childcare is also an issue in England, particularly in some areas. Ofsted says the total number of registered early years providers in England has fallen by 8% in the last year in large part driven by the fall in childminder numbers. However, the number of places has only declined by 2% as nurseries have boosted provision.  It says the total number of early years places, in particular places for children under three, will need to increase as the government begins to implement its recent plans to expand funded places to one and two year olds. Childcare providers have expressed concerns that the funding government will provide for this expansion will not cover the full costs of places.

The report covers issues such as curriculum issues and regulation as well as staffing shortages. It states the reasons for workforce shortages in England are similar to those seen in other countries, that is:

  • low income
  • high workload and responsibilities
  • over-reliance on female practitioners
  • insufficient training and opportunities for progression
  • low status and reputation
  • negative organisational culture and climate.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has made various recommendations to address workforce shortages which the report endorses. To improve recruitment, it recommends increasing pay and requiring higher-level qualifications to improve career status. It also recommends increasing efforts to recruit more men into the workforce. To encourage people to stay in their early years career, it recommends improving working conditions and prioritising training and development opportunities to give practitioners a stronger professional identity and more career satisfaction.

The Government says changes in the ratio of carers to children could address both the staffing and expenses issue, but providers say it will make little difference and reduce the quality of care. In March 2023, the government announced a change to the ratio requirements in England, to start from September 2023. The required adult-to-child ratio will change from one to four to one to five for two year olds. This is in line with the ratio in Scotland. The report says it is higher than the OECD average.

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