Plans to ease childcare staffing ratios in nurseries in England have drawn an angry response from providers and parents who say their concerns have been ignored.
The government has announced it is launching a consultation on ways to reduce childcare costs for parents, most notably by changing staff-to-child ratios so that each adult can look after five two-year-olds instead of four as currently permitted.
It says the move could reduce costs by up to 15% or £40 a week for a family paying £265 a week for care for a two-year-old, if providers adopt the changes and pass on all the savings. However, the figures have been questioned by the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, which described them as “nonsense”.
Purnima Tanuku, the chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said: “From when this was first mooted, the sector has been saying that altering ratios for two-year-olds from 1:4 to 1:5 won’t make any meaningful difference to the cost of childcare for providers or parents. That can only come from the government paying the full rate for funded childcare places for children under five.
“Many children are coming into early years settings with additional needs having been impacted by Covid restrictions. More children are struggling with language acquisition and with their personal, social and emotional development as a result. This is why now is not the time to be giving young children less support.”
The proposed new ratio would bring England in line with Scotland, but Tanuku said the early years framework in Scotland was “very different in terms of qualification levels, staff training and support from their regulators”.
A study in 2013 – commissioned by the government when it was considering the policy – concluded that allowing staff members to look after more children would lead to a reduction in quality, and that there was little evidence that high fees were a result of regulatory requirements.
The government has reprised the policy as part of efforts to tackle the cost of living crisis.
Neil Leitch, the CEO of the Early Years Alliance, said: “It is beyond frustrating that the government is wasting its time consulting on relaxing ratios, rather than just admitting that if we want to have affordable, quality, sustainable care and early education in this country, we need to invest substantially more into the sector than we are doing at the moment.
“If the government wants to take lessons from other countries, maybe it should look at how much they invest in early years providers and how they respect and value the workforce. Watering down early years standards at a time when children need more support than ever is not, and never will be, the answer.”
Joeli Brearley, the founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said research by the charity and alliance found that only 2% of nurseries and preschools would lower fees for parents – mainly because most would not relax ratios – and even when they did the average would be about £2 a week.
She said: “We’re furious that after months and months of talking to the government, showing them data that, for two-thirds of families, childcare costs the same or more than their rent or mortgage and is pushing parents into poverty, children into poverty, they’ve come up with a proposal to change ratios that won’t reduce costs for parents but will just reduce quality.”
The government also announced plans to boost childminder numbers by granting them greater flexibility and reducing inspections, and it has launched a £1.2m campaign to encourage greater take-up of the £2,000-a-year tax-free childcare scheme and the universal credit childcare offer.
The education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, said: “Every child deserves a great start in life and that means giving families the support they need. Childcare is an integral part of our economy, and these reforms prove again that this government is on the side of working families. I’m hugely grateful to the thousands of dedicated early years professionals who provide daily care and education to our youngest children, which is why I am determined to support them by giving them greater flexibility in how they run their services.”