Leaked Clegg letter intensifies ratios row

Catherine Gaunt
Friday, May 10, 2013

The row over childcare ratios escalated last night after leaked letters between education and childcare minister Liz Truss and Nick Clegg came to light.

They show that Ms Truss wrote to Mr Clegg in December to ask for 'committee clearance' for her proposals.

In the letter, published by the BBC, Ms Truss says, 'The most high profile of my proposals will be my plans to give greater freedom to providers to manage their staffing skills and levels, including amending the existing staff: child ratios set out in the Early Years Foundation Stage.'

In his response Mr Clegg gave the go-ahead to proceed as long as 'DfE and HMT [Treasury] officials work together to ensure that these proposals are fully affordable from within DfE'S baselines on a sustainable basis.'

Childcare ratios have become the latest area of political contention between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, after Nick Clegg yesterday waded into the ratios debate.

Liz Truss was called to the House of Commons to defend her plans, when shadow education minister Stephen Twigg asked an urgent question in Parliament.

Mr Twigg said, the proposal was, 'yet another example of chaos and incompetence at the heart of government policy making', and that 'the scale of public opposition to the plans was overwhelming. The Government's own adviser on childcare, Professor Cathy Nutbrown, has said the ratio plans "make no sense at all".'

Mr Clegg told listeners on his LBC 97.3 weekly radio show, 'In a nutshell the debate is all about can you raise quality and quantity at the same time, in other words is there a link between increasing the number of toddlers that an adult's looking after and raising the qualifications of that adult. During the consultation quite a lot of people said there's a trade-off between the two. This is the stuff we're grappling with. We've got to get the balance right.'

On Newsnight presenter Gavin Esler said that the programme had been unable to find anyone from the sector to speak out in favour of the proposals to change ratios.

June O'Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation, appeared on the programme to explain the arguments against the plans.

The debate around ratios was 'complex', she said. 'The evidence is that you have to have the right ratios, the right environment and the right quality.'

She added, 'Mr Clegg is quite brave. No-one else is really listening to the sector.'

Ms O'Sullivan also stressed that the French Government contributed 'very significantly' to childcare services.

'The Government don't know the hourly rate for childcare and they are trying to do it on the cheap.'

The Pre-School Learning Alliance last night pressed the Government again to 'abandon this foolhardy initiative', which it said was 'almost universally opposed by parents, practitioners and the Government's own advisers, including some of the country's leading early years academics.'

Neil Leitch, the Alliance's chief executive, said, 'The minister is simply not listening. Thousands of parents, early years experts and practitioners have registered their opposition to these proposals. Yet it would appear that more than 85,000 people - including over 11,500 parents who have signed the Alliance's official e-petition - are wrong and one Minister is right. These proposals have no credibility whatsoever.

'The proposal lacks support with no proper consultation taking place with those most affected by the changes. The policy has been set on a pre-determined path by the Minister who is clearly not interested in listening to others. It is also clearly misleading to say a consultation took place on the proposed ratio change. Neither the sector nor parents were ever asked for their views on the new ratios. More accurately, we were asked how best providers could implement them.'

'It appears to be a lone crusade by the Minister with no evidence to back up her position. This has led to cherry-picking from various reports - distorting evidence or taking facts entirely out of context in the process.'

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