While nurseries are allowed to use a staff to child ratio of 1:13 for three- and four-year-olds in graduate-led sessions, many choose not to and operate with a ratio of 1:8.
However, the DfE now appears to be renewing its efforts to encourage settings to make greater use of the higher ratio.
The move follows a comment by education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss in July, saying she wanted more nurseries to offer education on a 1:13 basis led by degree-level staff.
Nursery World has learned that the DfE has spoken with a number of early years organisations and experts to determine 'barriers' preventing settings from using the higher ratio. Early Education, the Pre-School Learning Alliance (PLA) and National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) are among a number of organisations that have been contacted.
A DfE spokesperson said, 'In 2008, ratios were relaxed so nurseries could have classes of up to 13 children aged three or over when led by a teacher. School nurseries take advantage of this flexibility, whereas private nurseries are less likely to do so.
'We have always said we want this flexibility to be used more widely because evidence shows that teacher-led provision improves outcomes for children, and it's important that we explore what barriers are preventing nurseries from doing this.'
Neil Leitch, chief executive of PLA, told Nursery World that while the PLA was happy to be consulted, it had struggled to find any providers prepared to operate ratios at the increased level. 'We are always keen to maintain open, frank and constructive discussions with the DfE and so welcomed the fact that it had consulted with us on this issue. However, when we sought the views of our member settings across England, we struggled to find any providers willing or prepared to operate ratios at this level. Our practitioners voiced strong concerns that doing so would compromise quality, particularly in relation to providing focused care and learning to the children.'
Helen Moylett, president of Early Education, who was also consulted, said that she does not know of any settings that use the higher ratio. She explained, 'One issue is the fact that settings vary greatly in the numbers of well-qualified practitioners they have. One Level 6 practitioner cannot compensate for other under-qualified colleagues.
'But the big issue is the welfare of children and I am very heartened by parents' and the sector's general resistance to 1:13. Setting leaders do not implement the ratio because they are professionals who care deeply about children. Even in maintained nursery schools where levels of qualification tend to be highest I do not know of one head teacher who uses 1:13.
'Three- and four-year-olds are not generally less needy of warmth and affection than two-year-olds and however well qualified a practitioner is, she or he has only one pair of arms.'
She added, 'Perhaps the DfE should look again at implementing a few more of Cathy Nutbrown's recommendations, rather than tinkering round the edges trying to get practitioners to implement apparently cost-cutting measures like high ratios.'
Nursery group Busy Bees has said that it is important that providers make their own assessment and determine whether it is appropriate for them to adopt a 1:13 ratio.
Marg Randles, co-founder and managing director of Busy Bees, said, 'There is concern within the sector that a reduction in staff may increase the pressure on an already stretched workforce.
'The majority of settings in the UK are designed to accommodate numbers divisible by eight, so where a room can accommodate 16 three- to five-year-olds, two staff would still be required. It may, however, be more appropriate in rooms that accommodate more children. I am certain that those who feel it is appropriate in their setting will operate using a 1:13 ratio. It's important that providers make their own assessment and determine whether it is appropriate for their children within their setting. Those who believe that it is appropriate are probably doing so already.' Along with consulting with the sector, the DfE has also asked parents of three- and four-year-olds, via Twitter and its Facebook page, to complete a survey on the qualification levels of staff at their child's nursery and the ratio of staff to children.
The survey of ten questions asks parents what ratio they think their child's nursery should use, if the number of staff compared to children concerns them and whether they think it is important to have staff qualified to graduate level.
This is despite research by the department in July which found that of the 1,000 parents it questioned, 59 per cent thought the current maximum ratio limit for three- to five-year-olds of 13 children to one adult, when led by a graduate, is too high.
The research was carried out before the decision by the Government to ditch plans to relax ratios to allow nurseries and childminders to care for more babies and toddlers.
News of the new survey for parents and how it was publicised has sparked criticism among early years experts and organisations. Ross Midgley, director of PBD training and a nursery owner, has written a critique on the survey (see Nursery World website), in which he questions whether a survey launched via Twitter can generate 'statistically valid information'.
He said, 'This survey is a shambles. Either standards in the civil service have slipped further than we thought, or ministers want a quick and dirty justification for claiming that parents don't care about ratios and qualifications.
'I'm on record as saying that however ill-conceived Ms Truss's ratio proposals may have been the sector's reaction to them was excessive and hysterical. And I'm not an expert in survey design, but it took me half an hour to come up with an analysis of the most obvious flaws.'
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the NDNA, has said that the survey questions are very broad and may not be consistent and robust enough to give a true picture of the wide range of provision across the country.
'NDNA understands that the DfE wants the views of parents as stakeholders in the early years sector, in which case the questionnaire does not fully cover the areas parents are looking for when choosing childcare provision. Providers' decisions to employ highly qualified staff are very much based on the financial settlements they receive in terms of childcare funding.'
She added, 'Along with a number of other organisations, NDNA has been consulted on the use of 1:13 ratios for three- and four-year-olds in nurseries and we feel it would have been helpful if we had been consulted on the questions in this survey before it was published.'
Laura Henry, managing director of the Childcare Consultancy, said she was surprised that the survey was posted on the DfE's Facebook and Twitter pages, as few parents follow the department on Twitter.
'What concerns me is that there is nothing on its website,' she said. 'How will the DfE know if parents of three- and four-year-olds have completed the survey?'
Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), has also spoken out against the DfE's method of inviting parents to do the survey.
She said, 'We question how this crude approach to gaining parent feedback is going to provide the DfE with any meaningful information.
'PACEY already knows from the hundreds of Netmum users and our members who shared their concerns over ratios that increasing child-to-carer ratios will have a negative impact on the quality and safety of care our youngest children receive. Instead of trying to cut costs for providers by increasing ratios, the Government should focus on ensuring existing funding reaches frontline providers.'
Early years practitioners have also taken to Twitter and Facebook to leave comments overwhelmingly against the use of the 1:13 ratio (see box).
Commenting on its survey for parents, a DfE spokesperson said, 'We are reforming childcare and increasing high-quality provision so that all children get the best possible start in life. Good-quality early years education has been shown to have a lasting, positive impact on children's attainment and behaviour, especially those from low-income backgrounds.
'This is why we are improving the quality of professionals working in the early years by introducing Early Years Teachers and Early Years Educators. The department is working to identify good practice in employing graduates and any barriers to their wider use.' -
Since Nursery World went to press, the link to the online survey is no longer live. However six of the 11 questions still appear on the DfE's Facebook page.
A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'The recent survey, which was always intended to run for one week, was designed to inform our understanding about what barriers might be preventing early years providers from using this.'
COMMENTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Kirsty Curtis - 'The ratios are so important to maintain, to be honest, when we can we always add another pair of hands. QTS/EYP/YET does not give you another pair of arms or the extra time to sit and talk and make time for each child. Changing the ratio will simply reduce quality.'
Helen Armstrong - 'I prefer lower ratio numbers with people who care, than people who hold a piece of paper and more children to care for.'
Siggie Lowe - 'I think these posts by the Department for Education are a bit sneaky. Did we as early years practitioners and parents not say no to a massive raising of ratios?'
@SueChambers14 - 'Do these questions mean that Ms Truss is still continuing with 1:13 ratios despite the huge opposition?'
@ed2inspire - 'I don't believe any of it's over. We need to keep on top of it all.'
@Sue_Cowley - 'Elizabeth Truss can't understand why early years people are motivated by kids and not pounds.'
@rea34103 - 'My worry is it's not compulsory now but will be later.'