Parliament committee debates “relax the ratios” proposal

The government’s proposal to relax childcare staffing ratios was debated by parliament’s petitions committee today, after a petition against the move garnered over 109,000 signatures.

Nursery carer with children


Parliament’s petitions committee held a debate today on the government’s proposal to “relax the ratios” for nurseries and childminders, after a petition against the move garnered over 109,000 signatures.

The government wants to relax England’s minimum staff-to-child ratios for two-year-olds from 1:4 to 1:5 in nurseries, as well as relaxing some rules for childminders, in order to reduce childcare fees for parents. But these proposals have long provoked an outcry from nurseries and families alike. You can read an explainer about the proposal here.

“For most parents, these are vital regulations that help to protect the safety of children,” said Catherine McKinnell, Labour MP for Newcastle North and chair of the petitions committee, who led the debate. She stressed that good early-years childcare was vital both for children’s development and also for parents’ ability to stay in the workforce.

McKinnell had consulted many childcare providers in preparation for the debate. She said they had told her it was unsafe to change childcare ratios without major changes to funding and training – the UK gives relatively little public funding to the childcare sector, and its workforce has a lower level of mandatory qualifications than some European countries. 

“Early-years education should be seen in terms of quality, not in terms of quantity,” said Steve Brine, Conservative MP for Winchester. He added that there was little doubt that relaxing the ratios would affect quality, which was troubling given that good early-years childcare boosts children’s educational outcomes in school and beyond. 

Brine also called for the government to provide clear workings as to exactly how the ratios proposal would save money for families. 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 this year by the Early Years Alliance, which represents over 14,000 nurseries, childminders and pre-schools in England.

Many MPs at the debate drew on their own experiences as parents, recalling how challenging it was to look after young children and keep them safe, even in situations where there were two parents and two children – a ratio of 1:1.

Some MPs said that the government should not be criticised for examining ratios at a time when families are worried about childcare costs, as long as it looked at these ratios in the context of the overall childcare system. Vicky Ford, Conservative MP for Chelmsford, said the government should not compare England’s ratios with those of other countries without also comparing issues such as qualifications. 

Siobhan Baillie, Conservative MP for Stroud, who has long advocated for childcare reform, was another voice calling for more details and clarity from the government. She pointed out that the ratios proposal has been around since at least 2013 and that, without proper detail, the conversation would simply keep going “round and round”.

Baillie said the government should provide evidence on how ratios would affect safety for children, the current high fees for families, and the current low wages for childcare staff.

The Early Years Alliance issued a statement after the debate to restate its opposition to ratio changes. “The government knows that relaxing ratios will do untold damage to the sector, and yet ministers continue to waste time and resources on this unsafe, ridiculous and ill-thought-out proposal,” said CEO Neil Leitch.

“The arguments put forward in this afternoon’s debate clearly showed there is simply no case to change ratios.”


You can watch the full debate here.

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