The Government's recently announced policy proposals in its report More Great Childcare have wide-ranging implications for how nurseries manage their businesses, and for the sector's long-term sustainability. Published in response to Cathy Nutbrown's review of early years education and childcare qualifications, it has gone further than anyone probably anticipated.
Proposals include an enhanced role for Ofsted, a new vision for qualifications and - most controversial of all - changes to ratios. Here, we examine the proposals from the manager's perspective.
Ofsted will become the sole arbiter of quality in the early years. More inspectors will be devoted to early years with a remit to focus more emphasis on learning and development and children's progress.
Changes to regulation and inspection will require legislation. Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw will set out plans for improvement of early years inspection in the next few months.
- Have greater freedom to target weaker providers.
- Have greater flexibility in terms of when inspections are scheduled, as opposed to the current four-year cycle.
- Providers will be able to request and pay for an early re-inspection if they believe their service has improved.
The report argues that current regulations are too preoccupied with 'relatively trivial issues'. It calls for the replacement of 'overly complicated' safeguarding and welfare sections of the EYFS framework with a new general welfare and safety requirement. The proposals include removing the rules setting out the amount of floor space per child and dropping the requirement to have a place, such as a staffroom, where parents can talk to staff privately.
Ken McArthur, joint owner of Polly Anna's Nursery in York, says:
'Currently, the regulations are restricting my flexibility. We are busy on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and are turning local families away. While we have sufficient staff to take the children, we do not have sufficient space because the regulations do not take account of the outdoor area.
'There has been a backlash from the industry over this, because we are going from too stringent and prescriptive regulation to no control.
'In some settings like ours - where we have canopies and it is weather-shielded - the children can be outside almost every day. With the launch of the Early Years Foundation Stage, we had the emphasis on outdoor space with free flow. That should have been taken into account when looking at floor space.
'There are some city centre settings with no direct access to the outdoors, so they need extra space inside for the children to experience those activities that promote gross motor skills such as jumping and climbing.
'I believe we need some form of light touch control. We are going from being too controlling to no control. I think the middle way is to have guidance - not regulation, but there should be guidance on the amount of floor space taking into account the size of the outdoor area.
'I fear there will always be rogue traders - there are in every industry - and inevitably a small minority will abuse space ratios and cram children in with the subsequent risk to the safety of the children and the impact on quality childcare.
'I strongly object to the fact there will be no guidance at all on space. If we have guidance and a provider registers its maximum number with Osfted, it would mean parents would have an idea about what is a realistic number of children when they are looking for a nursery.
'I am concerned as to how Ofsted will be able to make a judgement on whether the space available is suitable by looking at the providers' attendance records.'
The Government recognises the achievements of Early Years Professionals (EYPs) in raising standards in the sector, but argues that public perception of their status and skills is poor.
It wants to continue the drive, started under the last Labour administration, to attract more graduates into the sector, and will achieve this by building on the EYP programme.
- Early Years Teachers (EYTs), who will be specialists in early childhood development, will be introduced with the first cohort beginning training this September. The EYP standards will be adapted to reflect Teaching Standards.
- EYTs will have to meet the same entry levels as primary school teachers - a minimum C grade in English, Maths and Science GCSE. From September 2014, they will have to meet the same skills tests.
- Existing EYPs will be recognised as the equivalent to EYTs.
- EYT will be seen as equivalent to Qualified Teachers Status (QTS), but EYTs will not actually attain QTS.
- Future entrants to the profession will train at Level 3 to become Early Years Educators. They will be required to have a minimum grade C in GCSE English and maths.
- The Teaching Agency is consulting on tougher criteria for new qualifications, to be published in summer. Awarding bodies will introduce new qualifications in September 2014.
- The new criteria will not be applied retrospectively, so previous qualifications will retain their status.
Clare Roberts, CEO of the north-west based Kids Planet day nursery chain, says:
'Everyone is quick to condemn, but there are positives. The commitment to raising qualifications and raising standards is a plus.
'I am an EYP myself. In all our settings we have EYPs because I totally believe in people taking further qualifications if they want to become graduates and doing further qualifications once they have a degree.
'My initial thought was to wonder whether you would call staff EYPs or EYTs, but it doesn't make much difference. I think the term EYT is more parent friendly. A parent will have more respect for someone whose job title is Early Years Teacher.
'I know people are not happy about the lack of QTS status but a lot depends on how you value your EYPs in your setting; we pay ours reasonably well and value them.
'It is good that they are saying that anyone who is already an EYP will become an EYT. It is not a wasted qualification.
'On the proposal for Early Years Educators, some people do not like the change in name but what we do in the early years is education.
'It is not education in the sense of getting the children sitting at desks, but it is education in terms of supporting them to develop the basic skills that will take them on through life. We start children off on their path of lifelong learning. The quality and ability of the staff you have will shape and form those children.
'I am in favour of people having good English and maths, but I am not sure whether we need them to have a qualification at GCSE. When people are undertaking planning around communication for an individual child, they need to have language and literacy skills. We have supported staff who have had difficulties in these areas.
'I do not understand the rationale that says if you have English and maths GCSEs you can operate to higher ratios.'
The proposal to slacken the ratios in England and allow providers employing better-qualified staff to look after more children has provoked the most criticism across the sector. The report says the Government wants to shift the focus from the quantity of staff towards the quality of education and care.
Ratio rules have remained largely unchanged since the 1970s and the Government, which wants to make childcare more affordable, says changing ratios will reduce staff costs and can be justified because staff will be better qualified.
A consultation was launched on the qualification requirements, which would allow nurseries and childminders to work to higher ratios from this September. The exercise, which closed on 25 March, asked for views on how to link ratios to quality. See: www.education.gov.uk/aboutdfe/departmentalinformation/consultations/ a00220966/early-educ-childcare-staff-deploy
The proposals on ratios in nurseries are:
- 1:4 for babies and one-year-olds (up from the current 1:3 ratio).
- 1:6 for two-year-olds (currently 1:4).
- The ratios for three-to-five-year-olds will remain at 1:8, or 1:13 if led by a graduate - the Government wants to see more 1:13 teacher-led sessions in nurseries.
Sylvia Fields, director of Lincolnshire Montessori, says:
'Relaxing ratios will, I believe, result in many leaving the sector. Our staff are committed to providing quality relationships with our children. An increase in the numbers they each care for can only reduce the experience for the child.
'Communication with our parents is crucial to developing a sound, trusting relationship. This time and effort would be severely compromised with additional parents' needs to be met.
'Clearly, children's welfare, health and safety and learning and development will be compromised. Children's experiences will be emotionally, cognitively and linguistically poorer.
'The operational demands of outdoor learning, local walks and fire evacuation will be ever more challenging. Increased expectations on fewer staff will result in reduced care and attention, which in turn may lead to children's personal needs not being met. Children's freedom will be compromised and opportunities for adult-child interaction reduced. It is an altogether flawed, ill-considered and dangerous policy.
'As an early years provider of 40 years, I have deep concerns about the potential impact on the quality of provision. It will certainly decrease the quality of experience for children.
'I would not consider relaxing our ratios. Our organisation is driven by quality and not profit. We are working in the interests of the child and their family.'
'In this climate of austerity, we are already compromised by the paucity of 'free' entitlement funding. Our team is already giving more of their own time and resources in order to maintain our outstanding service. Our children and team deserve better than conditions under relaxed ratios.
'As a graduate and postgraduate, I am no more able to provide for additional children than a practitioner with a Level 3 qualification. I still only have two eyes and two arms. I fail to see the connection between a higher qualification and the proposed ability to offer care and education to more children.'
In a controversial move, the Government announced that it wants to make it easier for schools to be able to offer provision for under-fives. It argues that countries like France, where children can start at ecole maternelle infant school from the age of two, offer a model that is well-established and respected.
The document says the development of EYTs working with the youngest children will make it easier for schools to offer early years education, as the teaching workforce will cover all ages.
Already, many primary schools have nurseries attached and about half of children's centres are on school sites. The plan is to build on this by:
- Removing barriers to schools, improving their offer to younger children.
- Subject to legislation, lifting the current requirement for schools to register separately with Ofsted in order to provide for children under three.
- Reforming the 'cumbersome statutory processes' for schools to change their age range, to make it easier for them to offer early years provision for two-year-olds.
The Government envisages the establishment of more traditional nursery classes. It says by focusing regulation and inspection on quality and outcomes - 'We will encourage private and voluntary nurseries to use existing flexibilities that allow them to have graduates leading classes of 13 children per adult. Together with making it easier for schools to take younger children, this will give more parents the option of a traditional nursery class led by a teacher.'
Jonathan Player, operations director at Seymour House, says:
'Having just read the Government's policy document, More Great Childcare, my reaction was quite different to the views of some providers expressed on the day of publication.
'Ultimately, it is parents who decide on these matters by voting with their feet. I believe that it is the desire of practitioners, competition between providers and parental choice that has mainly been responsible for pushing up standards in recent years, not regulation.
'The document seeks to increase the availability of quality childcare at a cost that is affordable. Regulation should be about setting minimum standards, rather than prescribing precisely how improvements are to be made in a singular and uniformed manner.
'I have a lot more confidence in the ability of parents and providers to innovate and make choices about staffing levels and qualifications, and - as a result - the salaries necessary to recruit, train and retain the calibre of workforce required.
'The policy to encourage schools to offer more childcare is of concern if implemented badly. If schools cherry pick nursery education by offering more term-time-only attendance or offer year-round provision only from the age of two or three upwards, they will leave existing provision, offering full day care from the end of maternity leave, unviable.
'This is precisely what happened to out-of-school childcare in many neighbourhoods when schools accepted money from the New Opportunities Fund or applied for Extended School Status. Unfortunately, this acted like a scorched earth policy in many school catchment areas because it extinguished existing provision and then left those communities with nothing when the funding ran out.
'If we can avoid this obvious danger, I am optimistic that the policy will enable providers to continue to develop a wider range of high-quality, affordable childcare regulated by parental choice.'