This was the question repeatedly asked at an informal seminar recently held by the House of Commons Education Committee, a cross-party group of members of Parliament who keep a critical eye on Government policy.
They invited a range of experts from the early years world to discuss issues they wanted to understand more about.
The workforce question was repeatedly presented as a simple balance. Since there is only a limited pot of money, if qualifications go up with improved pay to match, then ratios have to change so that each practitioner is responsible for more children. So which is better, maintaining current ratios or raising qualifications?
While there is ample evidence of the importance of a well-trained professional workforce, the cost implications can't be ignored. It is unfair to ask professionals undertaking highly skilled, responsible work to expect less reward than professionals in other fields. Nor will low pay attract the best people into the role.
We might answer the qualifications vs ratios challenge by widening the question. Some argue that evidence shows that qualifications are more important than ratios, with the leader's professional qualification raising the standard of all in the team. But this cannot apply equally across the age range. A practitioner who gains a Level 3 qualification or a degree may gain knowledge and skill in supporting children effectively. But she still has only two hands, and her new qualification won't enable her to change more nappies while giving tuned-in responses to the children's gestures and sounds.
I hope we can avoid the either/or dilemma.
Both a highly qualified workforce and low ratios are essential elements of provision. Helen Penn, professor of early childhood, has studied international early years systems and concludes that in the UK we are not getting value for money. An overhauled funding system could give settings more financial stability and limit parental contributions, while promising children the warm attention of a good number of well-qualified professionals.