DfE backs down over refusal to publish ratio findings

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The Department for Education has made a U-turn over its decision not to publish the results of a key early years consultation, which included plans to raise child: adult ratios in early years settings, following an appeal by the union Unison, Nursery World can exclusively reveal.

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The consultation results show huge opposition to ratio changes

Unison had challenged the Department's decision not to publish the consultation's findings via a Freedom of Information request.

The DfE had only agreed to publish a breakdown of the number and type of respondents, which showed that 1,394 responses were received.

Responding to Unison's initial FOI request, the DfE said that it was deemed not 'in the public interest' to publish the results of the consultation on early education and staff deployment.

It also said that it had decided against publishing because to do so would be 'likely to have a corrosive effect on the conduct of good Government.'

Now after Unison's appeal against the decision, the DfE has considered the case again and has concluded that the 'public interest was finely balanced'.

A DfE spokesperson said, 'After reconsidering this FOI case we decided that making the summary of responses to the consultation public was appropriate.'

Last year's very public row over the plans to relax ratios to allow nurseries and childminders to care for more babies and toddlers caused a rift in the coalition Government between Nick Clegg and the Department for Education.

The coalition Government eventually ditched the proposals in the face of the strength of opposition from nurseries and childminders, backed by tens of thousands of parents.

The summary of responses now released shows the extent to which the early years sector was opposed to the proposals.

Sixty-six per cent of respondents disagreed with the planned changes to ratios.

Where providers made a suggestion on which level of qualifications should allow providers to operate with the proposed new ratios, 15 per cent said that 100 per cent of staff should be qualified to a minimum of Level 3.

Just under a third said that higher ratios would pose a risk to children's safety.

Many respondents raised concerns about how staff would manage the care duties of young children such as changing, feeding, comforting and playing.

In response to the question asking how providers might be encouraged to make greater use of graduate-led groups for children over three, many respondents felt that the 1:13 ratio would compromise the quality of provision they offered.

Respondents also commented that qualifications are not the only factor to consider when thinking about how provision should be organised, and mentioned the practical issues with managing larger groups of children.

Others suggested that different ratios would have an impact on child safety, with specific comments on how staff would evacuate children in the event of a fire and the likely number of accidents.

Specific issues raised included the impact of large groups on the structure of learning - many felt that to manage these large groups they would need to organise more structured groups.

The DfE response said that this would be a positive move, because it was keen to see an increase in structured, teacher-led activity.

Childminders also raised concerns about the difficulties of caring for more children, including paperwork, more stress and issues such as caring for four children under the age of five when they were out and about.

Ben Thomas, national officer at Unison, said, 'The decision to finally publish the results of the consultation is welcomed, although I am still bemused as to why the DfE has dragged its heels over this.

'Despite the loaded questions in the consultation, the sector made it clear that it was massively opposed to the ratio changes. The responses clearly indicated that people were concerned that the proposals would damage the quality of care and compromise the safety of children. No-one seemed to agree that the proposals would improve quality, reduce costs to parents or enable settings to pay staff more.'

He added that it was also clear from the findings that the key concerns of the sector are inadequate funding and low pay.

'These issues still need to be addressed urgently,' he said.

'It is disappointing that the DfE has still published no reasons or rationale for rejecting the recommendations from the Nutbrown Review for a fully qualified Level 3 workforce. The current policy vacuum leaves us no nearer to addressing any of the key workforce issues of pay, career structures and qualifications identified in the review.'