Victory for the early years sector over ratios

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The Government has bowed to fierce opposition and ditched the proposed changes to staff: child ratios for nurseries and childminders.

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After months of campaigning by the early years sector and parenting organisations, Nick Clegg has confirmed that the changes to ratios for pre-school children that were consulted on earlier in the year have been scrapped.

Mr Clegg said that the decision has been made not to press ahead with the ratio plans, because evidence is overwhelmingly against changing them.

He acknowledged that the proposals were heavily criticised by providers, parents and experts and that there is 'no real evidence' that the changes would save parents money.

Just two weeks ago, an economic analysis published by the Department for Education claimed that changes to ratios would allow nurseries to cut fees for parents by as much as 28 per cent and allow nurseries to increase their revenue by £200,000 a year. The figures were slammed by the sector as 'a fantasy'.

Mr Clegg said that, 'The argument that this will help families with their weekly childcare bill simply does not stack up.'

The Government has been forced to back down on the deeply unpopular policy after the proposals, first set out by education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss in 'More Great Childcare' in January, were condemned by nurseries, childminders, early years experts and parents.

Within two weeks of the proposals being announced more than 50,000 people had signed petitions started by childminder Penny Webb, the Childminding Forum and the Pre-School Learning Alliance, backed by the National Day Nurseries Association, PACEY (the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years) and the Daycare Trust and the Family and Parenting Institute (now the Family and Childcare Trust), among others. The parenting organisation Mumsnet also joined the campaign.

Last month, the Deputy Prime Minister stepped into the debate to say that he had 'grave concerns' about the changes.

The debate over ratios was due to face a vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday, with Labour tabling new amendments to the Children and Families Bill.

Today Mr Clegg said, 'When you are talking about something this important to parents, I think it is imperative to be led by the evidence - which is overwhelmingly against changing the rules on ratios.

'The proposals to increase ratios were put out to consultation and were roundly criticised by parents, providers and experts alike.

'Most importantly, there is no real evidence that increasing ratios will reduce the cost of childcare for families.

'The argument that this will help families with their weekly childcare bill simply does not stack up.

'I cannot ask parents to accept such a controversial change with no real guarantee it will save them money - in fact it could cost them more.'

'I have concluded that, because it will not reduce costs for parents or increase the quality of childcare, the proposed ratio changes for pre-school children cannot proceed.'

He added, 'Ratios for pre-school children is just one part of a wider package of reforms being looked at in Government.

'I will continue to work closely with ministerial colleagues in this area and the Coalition Government will come forward with other proposals in due course.'

A childcare policy briefing, which has also been released, sets out the rationale for not going ahead with the ratio reforms, saying that they will not:

  • result in lower childcare costs for parents
  • will undermine the quality of care and learning and could put children at risk;
  • and that the changes won't be taken up by providers, especially because parents don't want them.

The Government has finally been forced to acknowledge the flaws in the arguments put forward for the ratio proposals in 'More Great Childcare' and by the minister.

The paper cites a range of evidence from the sector, to show that the ratio changes would not cut childcare costs for parents, including Busy Bees’ claim that the reforms could lead to a rise in fees for parents as savings from reducing staff numbers would be wiped out by raising staff salaries.

It also refers to Vidhya Alakeson from the Resolution Foundation, who writing in Nursery World last month highlighted that any money made by relaxing ratios was being double counted.

The paper also highlights research and evidence by Professor Cathy Nutbrown and Naomi Eisenstadt and Professor Kathy Sylva, among others, stating that changing ratios would lead to a reduction in the quality of childcare and put children at risk.

It also puts to rest the argument for changing ratios based on childcare policy in other countries, such as France and Denmark, acknowledging that, ‘It is very difficult to compare the childcare systems of different countries because they are so different and often have far tougher regulation and inspection regimes… Some of the ratios that have been cited for other countries don’t take account of all the adults working with children so are not comparing like for like. The French have a completely different system and style of childcare.’

'Delighted'

      Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, which has led a lengthy campaign against the ratio proposals from the start, said, 'We are absolutely delighted that the Deputy Prime Minister has intervened and listened to the concerns and evidence gathered by the sector, parents and early years experts which dismantled the arguments for taking forward this ill-advised plan.

      'It is a real testimony to the strength of those practitioners and parents who campaigned so actively over the past few months to challenge these plans.'

      More than 30,000 parents signed the Alliance's Rewind on Ratios online and paper petitions against the plans, while a further 2,000 have written to their local MPs to register their concerns.

      Mr Leitch added, 'The sector is supportive of the Government's aims to raise the status and quality of the childcare workforce. But this proposal was not the way to achieve this. There is no doubt that relaxing ratios would have lowered the overall quality of childcare in this country. Not only would children have received less one-to-one support from childcare workers, but their well-being would also have been put at serious risk.'

      'The Government argued that these changes were in the best interest of parents and would lead to lower childcare costs, but parents themselves made it abundantly clear to us that while they would like cheaper childcare, jeopardising quality and the safety of their children was a much higher price than they were prepared to pay. Not to mention the fact that there was no credible evidence that relaxing ratios would have any impact on childcare bills anyway.

      'The recent Department for Education financial saving predictions have been shown to be an absolute farce and clearly were a last-ditch attempt to convince parents otherwise.

      'After months of petition, surveys, Freedom of Information requests and emails to Government officials, we are grateful that the Deputy Prime Minister's intervention has prevented the implementation of a policy that would have had such a detrimental impact on thousands of children in childcare settings across the country.'

      Mr Leitch also paid tribute to the role of other campaigners, including Mumsnet, in the success of the campaign, and said, 'We are very grateful for the invaluable support of everyone who helped us ensure that the voices of thousands of concerned parents were heard.

      'We hope that this decision is a sign that Government recognises the need to listen to the views of both parents and practitioners before deciding on any future early years policies.'

      Sharon Hodgson MP, Labour's shadow children's minister, said, 'This just goes to show that David Cameron does not have a credible plan to help families access good quality, affordable childcare.

      'The Government's own experts were agreed that cutting childcare staff numbers would have seriously endangered quality and safety, and would not have cut costs to parents. Ministers have wasted a year on these flawed plans while childcare costs have kept on rising and thousands of childcare places have been lost.'

      Read reaction from the sector and Nursery World's latest blog on the issue.

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