Almost ten years ago, in 2013, More Great Childcare was published by the then Minister, Liz Truss. A watershed policy document, this paper included the proposal to reduce the number of adults:children in early years provision in England:
More Great Childcare (Department for Education 2013)
Many will remember the headlines, the debate and petitions around this highly contentious issue. Later that year the proposal was overwhelmingly rejected by the early years sector and quashed by the then Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg.
Fast forward to late April 2022 and reports emerged from a government Cabinet meeting that the Prime Minister wants to relax staff to child ratios in nurseries to help cut childcare costs for parents, and tackle the cost of living crisis. The BBC reported that the proposal came directly from the prime minister, who wanted to lower the legal limits on adult supervision for children in England, as part of a drive to reduce living costs.
So the early years sector is faced yet again with a proposal to prioritise cheap childcare for parents over quality early education for children. Cue a collective intake of breath from the sector.
It has been, and is likely to continue to be, a debate in which the needs and priorities of multiple stakeholders are at the centre of the fray. Here, I highlight what I think are the five most prominent arguments circulating against changes to ratios:
1. Safety and welfare of children would be at risk
It is widely felt that children’s safety and welfare would be compromised if fewer adults care for more children. The EYFS framework is clear:
Children learn best when they are healthy, safe and secure, when their individual needs are met, and when they have positive relationships with the adults caring for them (p.21)
Staffing arrangements must meet the needs of all children and ensure their safety. Providers must ensure that children are adequately supervised… Exceptionally, and where the quality of care and safety and security of children is maintained, changes to the ratios may be made. (p.28)
Safeguarding concerns remain at the forefront of the arguments against a change to ratios with many colleagues who are working in practice voicing their fears about the implications for reduced number of adults, particularly in group-based care.
Several commentators have highlighted how common sense tells us even the highest-qualified practitioner only has one pair of hands and one pair of eyes.
2. Quality of experience for children and their outcomes will suffer.
As we emerge from the pandemic and the government presses the need for children to ‘catch up’ on ‘lost learning’, there are greater expectations about the importance of quality experiences for children. At the same time the social, emotional and communication needs of young children have been described (by Ofsted):
The pandemic has continued to affect children’s communication and language development, and many providers noticed delays in their speech and language progress. Providers are making more referrals for external help than before the pandemic and are waiting longer for this specialist help. To compensate, providers were making sure that children were learning in an environment rich with language, with a focus on extending vocabulary and practising speech.
The negative impact on children’s personal, social and emotional development has also continued, with many children lacking confidence in group activities.
This is born out in the experiences of many educators in the sector. Author and Pre-School Chair Sue Cowley recently tweeted:
‘There are such high levels of need at the moment, that a lot of settings are doing more 1 to 1 than ever before. If a child needs 1 to 1, they need 1 to 1. Increasing ratios doesn't change levels of needs’
So it is difficult to see how a reduction in the number of adults to children supports a commitment to quality provision and the needs of children in a post-pandemic context.
Research by Bonetti and Brown (2018) highlight the iron triangle of ‘structural’ elements of quality provision, namely: workforce training and professional development, child to staff ratios and group/classroom size. Bonetti and Brown summarise:
The evidence on child to staff ratios is fairly conclusive: having fewer children per staff leads to better children’s outcomes as it provides the opportunity for more individualised attention and leads to better teacher and child behaviour. (p.6)
Therefore, it is likely that any proposal to increase the number of young children cared for and educated by adults would jeopardise the ratio and group size elements of this quality triangle.
3. Staff wellbeing will be worsened with further implications for recruitment and retention
An important and pressing argument is the suggested impact on staff wellbeing and on resultant recruitment and retention issues. We know from multiple studies that recruitment challenges in the sector are intensifying (Hardy et al 2022, EYA 2021, NDNA 2021). Indeed, in April 2022 in research on ‘Education recovery in early years providers’ Ofsted highlighted:
‘Staff shortages were affecting the quality of teaching and implementation of catch-up strategies. Having fewer staff on site could also result in behaviour management issues.’
It is difficult to see how increasing the number of young children cared for and educated by early years staff, and thereby increasing educator workload, would remedy either the wellbeing of existing staff or the ongoing recruitment and retention challenges.
4. Cost savings will not be passed on to parents
There is also little evidence that the proposed savings from changes to ratios (i.e. fewer adults or more children and resulting cost savings) will be passed on to parents in the form of fee reductions.
Over 70% of providers’ costs go on staffing; with the adult minimum wage increasing annually (+6.5% in 2022). Coupled with increases in the employer contributions, providers are facing a substantially higher wage bill. Alongside this, the longstanding and continued underfunding of the entitlement hours (EYA 2021a) creates little alternative but the subsidy of this through ‘paid for’ hours. Thus, as this gap between income from funded places and costs is sustained or widened, income generation rather than fee reduction remains of paramount importance for provider sustainability.
There is also the argument that the risk of a two-tier childcare sector will emerge, with more prosperous areas retaining the current ratios because parents can afford the higher fees, while nurseries in disadvantaged areas will either be forced to close or relax ratios to take more children in order to remain solvent.
5. There are limitations to the applicability of international comparisons
A further claim is the limitations of international comparisons. Ministers appear to look to (and seemingly cherry pick) the early years systems in other nations to compare adult:child ratios. But such benchmarking needs to be undertaken with extreme caution given the multiple factors which differ in each context. The selective quoting of ratios in particular nations often masks additional support staff employed in settings but not always counted in mandated ‘teaching’ ratios.
In addition, it is interesting to note that UNICEF found:
‘In 21 countries the ratio fell between 2005 and 2018 reflecting rising standards or falling fertility rates that allowed for formation of smaller groups.’ (p.17)
As I write this, early years membership bodies are seeking members’ views, sector media reflects the arguments and a gov.uk petition is gathering momentum with tens of thousands of signatories already secured. Arguments and action on the issue from early educators, parents, carers and supporters of the sector appear as strong as they were ten years ago.
In the proposed review of deregulation, DfE have stated ‘health and safety as well as quality of provision will continue to be of paramount importance', and many will continue to cite these words. If the Minister is to honour his word and not ‘compromise quality and safety’ it is difficult to see how a reduction in adult:child ratios would support this commitment. Increased investment is the answer.
Bonetti, S. and Brown, K. (2018). Structural elements of quality early years provision: a review of the evidence. London: EPI.
Blanden,J., Crawford, C., Drayton, E., Farquharson, C., Jarvie, M., and Paull, G. (2020). Challenges for the childcare market: the implications of COVID-19 for childcare providers in England. London: IFS.
Department for Education (2013) More Great Childcare. London: DfE
DfE (2021). Statutory framework for the early years foundation stage. London: DfE
Early Years Alliance (2021a) Freedom of Information investigation findings. London:EYA. https://www.eyalliance.org.uk/freedom-information-investigation-findings
Early Years Alliance (2021b) Breaking Point: The impact of recruitment and retention challenges on the early years sector in England. London: Early Years Alliance
Hardy, K. Tomlinson, J., Norman, H., Cruz, K., Whittaker, X., Archer, N. (2021) Essential but undervalued: early years care & education during COVID-19. Leeds: University of Leeds.
National Day Nurseries Association (2021) The COVID-19 pandemic and the early years workforce. Huddersfield: NDNA/EPI
Ofsted (2022) Education recovery in early years providers: spring 2022 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/education-recovery-in-early-years-providers-spring-2022
UNICEF (2021) Where do rich countries stand on childcare? Florence: Office of Research Innocenti, UNICEF