While the majority of responses from the early years and childcare sector are united in violently opposing proposals to change ratios, so far just a few of the biggest nursery groups appear to be backing the report.
The National Day Nurseries Association, the Pre-School Learning Alliance and the National Childminding Association have all spoken out against the ratio plans.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance said, he was ‘absolutely appalled by this fixation to alter ratios’.
He said there were serious implications for quality, child safety and child protection, and warned, ‘This is a recipe for disaster and I hope those making this decision will be enthusiastic in answering questions from concerned parents and the media when the consequences of their actions come to the fore.’
Ninety-four per cent of respondents to an Alliance survey are against changes to ratios.
The Alliance also re-iterated its call for an independent audit of childcare funding for the free early education entitlement.
‘Childcare spending figures quoted by the Government recently have moved from £7bn to £5bn a year, so it appears that the need to balance the books is the main priority rather than deal with what childcare providers have called for the Government to do for years – address the fundamental problem of ensuring that all the free entitlement funding reaches the frontline.’
The NDNA said that the ‘quality of early education must not be sacrificed’.
Chief executive Purnima Tanuku said, ‘Many parents do not want an increase in the number of children nursery staff are allowed look after; they are worried it will have a negative impact on the individual attention and care their child receives.
‘We are particularly concerned about suggestions to increase the number of children under three that nursery staff can look after, due to the degree of personal attention needed by very young children.
‘Strong adult: child interactions are vital for good child development. Staff with higher qualifications will still find it difficult to give larger groups of under threes the level of practical care they need. It is particularly important that the Government’s investment in free places for disadvantaged two year olds is delivered in high-quality provision.’
Liz Bayram, chief executive of the National Childminding Association said she was relieved that the Department for Education had listened to the NCMA’s concerns and would maintain the current 1: 6 ratio for childminders.
‘However, increasing the number of under fives a childminder can care for at one time to four and including two babies under 12 months rather than one, can only be justified if systems are put in place to support childminders to make the quality judgements needed to ensure each child in their care still receives a high quality experience,' she said.
‘The plan does not seem to link this change to individual childminders holding higher Ofsted gradings, minimum qualifications nor the new Early Years Educator role. We know many of our members' do not use their full ratio level at present, because such young children rightly demand high levels of individual attention and care to thrive.’
She added that there were ‘significant concerns’ around plans to introduce childcare agencies and refuted the claim that childminder numbers had halved over the past 20 years and that this model would help recruit more childminders.
Ms Bayram added, ‘Our fear is this will lead to a two-tiered system for childminding and risk its future sustainability. Whilst now only proposed as an option for childminders to choose, it remains based on the widely discredited Dutch system.
‘We believe agencies will confuse parents, may not lead to Government’s desired quality improvements and could damage the hard-earned professionalism that childminders have achieved in recent years.’
Anand Shukla, chief executive of the Family Parenting Institute and Daycare Trust, said, 'We fully support the Government’s commitment to improve the quality of childcare by reforming early years qualifications and raising the status of the profession. However, there is a risk that emphasis on regulatory ratios is distracting attention from the urgent need to tackle high childcare costs. The evidence is that changes to ratios would not in practice significantly reduce costs to parents but might have a negative effect on the quality of care children receive.
'One-to-one interaction, alongside factors such as staff ability and leadership, is critical to early childhood development. There is no simple trade off where better qualified staff are necessarily able to care for more children. It is vital that ratios are not increased to the point that safety is put at risk. The Government must consult fully on the changes it is proposing, drawing on the best available evidence, international practice and the expertise of the childcare sector before making any decisions.'
So far, only a handful of nursery groups appear to be supporting the proposals.
In a statement Busy Bees said, ‘As Busy Bees continues to develop a national network of local nurseries, it supports initiatives that will increase flexibility for all child care providers, afford more opportunity to deliver a higher number of quality places and provide more choice for working parents. Encouraged by the Government’s focus on the impact high quality nursery education and childcare has on children and their development, Busy Bees believes the sector will welcome and embrace greater flexibility.’
However, the group also said that the proposed changes would in reality only save a family around £3.50 a week on childcare costs.
John Woodward, chief executive of Busy Bees, said, ‘In our opinion the childcare voucher system is the most effective way of helping working parents save money, which is why we introduced it in the first place.’
Mr Woodward reiterated a call to increase the cap on childcare vouchers from £55 to £75 a week.
Ros Marshall, chief executive of kidsunlimited, said the group ‘unequivocally welcomes the Government’s intention to raise the quality and reduce the cost of childcare. Both are vitally necessary.’
‘We welcome the opportunities offered by the proposed changes to the statutory ratios. It seems to us right that responsible providers should have increased power of decision in this matter. It is a flexibility we propose to use cautiously, always in the interests of children and only after consultation with parents, as the level of qualifications of our staff rises.’
Bright Horizons and My Family Carehave also added their support to the Government.
Anne Longfield, chief executive of 4Children, said she welcomed a commitment from the Government to improving the workforce.
She added,'We know that the shortage of affordable and accessible childcare is the biggest barrier to parents returning to work and holding down their job.
'Parents also agree that childcare needs to be the highest quality and want the peace of mind that their children are being well looked after, and their development needs are being met, by well trained and qualified staff. Parents will be anxious to understand what the proposals will mean for the number of staff that will be available to care for their children and will want to know that any changes are explicitly linked to achieving the highest quality.
'However, this costs money and reforms to the professional will – and should - lead to higher wage expectations. This is money that cannot come from parents who are already finding childcare costs a real strain. Where local authorities are able to pass more money on to providers that will of course be welcomed but it is unlikely that this will entirely fill the gap. Similarly, changes to ratios are unlikely to square the circle – particularly for the younger age groups.'
Sue Owen, director of programmes at the National Children’s Bureau, said, ‘Preschool education is vitally important for children’s development and we need to make sure that all children, right from the start, have access to the very best education and caring experiences available.’
‘While we support the Government’s plans for the development of the early years workforce with a level 3 Early Years Educator qualification, we are disappointed that the new Early Year’s Teachers will not be granted qualified teacher status, as recommended in the Nutbrown Review.’
‘We appreciate that the Government needs to act in order to make childcare more affordable, but are also concerned that allowing providers to take on more children, in the same space with the same number of staff, could put children’s welfare at risk and won’t necessarily save parents any more money.’
‘It is crucially important that the current staff to child ratios – for example one childminder to three under-5-year-olds or one nursery worker to three children under the age of two – are maintained, in order to ensure that our youngest children are safe and their development needs supported.’
Ms Owen added that evidence from a National Children’s Bureau research project, due to be published later this year, which examined parents’ views of childminding, shows that parents particularly appreciate the small group sizes offered by childminders, and the close one-to-one relationships children can develop with their carer.
Ryan Shorthouse of the Social Market Foundation, said research on the effect of different staff-to-child ratios on quality was 'limited' and it was impossible to draw firm conclusions on optimum ratios.
'The evidence is clear that what is most important is the quality of staff, which is associated with higher staff qualifications. So the Minister’s direction of travel is right. But although reforms could improve quality, they are not a solution to the poor affordability parents face,' he said.
'If less strict ratios will pay for higher quality staff, where are the savings for providers to charge less? Even if providers did have a bit more money, there is no guarantee they would pass it on to parents in the form of lower fees, especially considering their tight margins.'
- This story will continue to be updated with more comments and reaction.