Childcare floor space regulations under scrutiny

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Changes to the amount of floor space that early years settings must provide are being considered by the Government's Childcare Commission.

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The question of whether floor space ratios burden providers unnecessarily and if relaxing the regulations would bring down the cost of childcare was raised at a National Day Nurseries Association focus group on the Childcare Commission on behalf of the Department for Education in September.

Nursery owners had mixed views about whether it would be beneficial to reduce floor space ratios for two-year-olds to allow early years providers to offer more free places without any additional cost.

A survey by the Pre-School Learning Alliance in June of more than 1,000 nurseries and pre-schools found that 79 per cent would not be prepared to invest capital to increase their capacity for two-year-olds.

At the time, Ruth Pimentel, chief executive of Toad Hall Nursery group, told Nursery World that it would do all it could to offer places to two-year-olds, but their high occupancy presented limitations.

Ken McArthur, (pictured), owner of Polly Anna's Nursery in York, who has questioned how relevant the floor space ratios are today, said if changes were to be made they would need to be across the board. The nursery owner argued that the floor space ratios are outdated and allow more space per child the younger and less mobile they are.

Current regulations (see box) stipulate that early years settings must provide more space per child for those under two than for two-year-olds or threeto five-year-olds. Ratios were first introduced in 2001 under The National Standards for Under-8s Day Care and Childminding.

Recent changes to Ofsted's conditions of registration now put the onus on childcare providers to ensure they are following floor space regulations as specified in the EYFS.

Mr McArthur said, 'How do they (Government) justify giving more mobile children less space? It's not based on any scientific research or evidence.'

Rosemary Murphy, director of Portland Nurseries, echoed Mr McArthur's views that the ratios had been 'plucked out of thin air', but said she feared that making floor space regulations more lenient as well as reducing staff ratios,which has been hinted at by minister for education and childcare, Elizabeth Truss, would affect quality of care.

Another criticism made by Mr McArthur is that the regulations only take into account indoor space, when playing outdoors and free flow play is encouraged within the EYFS.

Previous Government reviews have not considered changes to floor space, he added.

He went on to say that ratios should be decreased for settings with outdoor areas as the children at his nursery spend a lot of time outdoors.

'In some nurseries space ratios are treated like sacred cows.'

The National Day Nurseries Association has a tool on its website for members to help them calculate space requirements per child.

Visit www.ndna.org.uk/childcarepractice

INDOOR SPACE RATIOS

Registered early years providers must meet the following indoor space requirements:

  • Children under two years: 3.5m2 per child.
  • Two year olds: 2.5 m2 per child.
  • Children aged three to five years: 2.3 m2 per child.

These calculations should be based on the net area of the rooms used by the children, not including storage areas, thoroughfares, dedicated staff areas, cloakrooms, utility rooms, kitchens and toilets.

The provider must ensure that, so far as is reasonable, the facilities, equipment and access to the premises are suitable for children with disabilities. Providers must provide access to an outdoor play area or, if that is not possible, ensure that outdoor activities are planned and taken on a daily basis (unless circumstances make this inappropriate, for example unsafe weather conditions).

Provision must be made (space or partitioned area) for children who wish to relax, play quietly or sleep, equipped with appropriate furniture. Sleeping children must be frequently checked. Except in childminding settings, there should be a separate baby room for children under the age of two. However, providers must ensure that children in a baby room have contact with older children and are moved into the older age group when appropriate

Source: Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage, 2012.

PROVIDERS WHO ARE AGAINST AMENDMENTS TO FLOOR RATIOS

TRACEY STOREY, Managing director Of Happy Child Nurseries

'My personal view is that the space ratios should not be changed, certainly not reduced, as I believe staff and children should have as much room as possible in their age appropriate groups. '

TONY DRIFFIELD, co-director of Mama Bear's Day Nursery group

'It is appropriate that under-threes and two-year-olds in particular should have the largest space allocation as they are natural inquisitors and move around exploring the environment. We're happy with the space requirements as they are, reducing them could lead to many providers "packing in" children and a general reduction in the quality of provision.

'We fully support the strategy of creating additional places for two-year-olds year olds, and that currently these are only on offer to good or outstanding providers. However, rather than reduce the space requirements for this crucial age or stage of development, we believe the solution lies with the market to invest in order to increase supply, with the support of local authorities, via capital grant funding if necessary.'

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