Why is Government not listening to us?

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Pre-School Learning Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch calls for a proper consultation on ratios

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Most people reading this article are likely to have experienced a mixture of disappointment and anger on hearing the recent announcement by the Education and Childcare Minister on childcare ratios.

In making these proposals, the Minister has completely disregarded the views of early years practitioners and many parents across the country. The day after the Government’s announcement I attended a 60 strong private early years provider event where not a single person in attendance felt that the proposal on ratio changes was acceptable. Add to that the fact that a recent Alliance survey revealed that 94% of providers believe they will be unable to maintain their current quality of service if staffing levels are reduced, and the message is clear: the sector does not support lower staff ratios.

We are told that the ratios are voluntary. Indeed, in the official report on the changes, More great childcare, the Minister stresses that "no settings will be obliged to use higher ratios, and parents will still be free to choose nurseries that operate on existing ratios if they prefer". But let’s be realistic. In an ideal world, all early settings would continue to adhere to existing ratios, ensuring that every single child receives the individual care and attention we all know to be vital to early learning and development. This simply won’t happen. Most settings are already struggling to offset spiralling costs with their commitment to delivering quality care to families and as soon as a few start to crumble it will drive the market in that direction. It is inconceivable to think that Government have not considered this scenario.

The Government seemingly cannot see that their proposal will create a two-tier system, one in which those parents who can afford high quality childcare reflected by high staff ratios will pay above the odds for such provision, while those who can’t are forced to settle for early years settings where one-to-one adult-child interactions are the exception, not the rule.

At a time when the Government is preparing to provide free early years education to 260,000 of the country’s most disadvantaged two-year-olds – children who are likely to require even more one-to-one support, care and attention – reducing staff ratios, is quite frankly, baffling. We know that the Government is facing a real challenge in ensuring that there are enough free entitlement spaces for eligible children to take up. A cynic might suggest that this, and not a desire to provide a higher quality early years education in England, has been a key determining factor in this latest decision.

The Minister must listen to the sector and parents, who are almost universally opposed to this proposal. The Childcare Commission consultation launched last summer was a complete non-starter. Run over the summer holidays and lacking any focus on the key issues facing providers today, it’s little wonder that it received little over 300 responses.

In conjunction with the More great childcare report, the Government is now running another consultation, this time specifically on the issue of staff ratios. Odd timing though, considering the Minister has already announced her proposals on the topic. It’s vital that the Government consider the views of those most directly affected by the policy change – families and practitioners – and so I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that the consultation should have taken place before such a decision was made?

This consultation, or rather post-consultation, is clearly working to a predetermined conclusion. One of the unashamedly leading questions, on the proposed changes to childminding ratios, asks: "What difference do you think [these ratio changes] will make to the childminding profession and what benefits do you think parents will get?" Immediately it’s presumed that such changes will indeed be beneficial.

Another question, which states that "too few providers" take advantage of the ability to operate with a 1:13 ratio in graduate led groups when working with over three’s, asks: "How might providers be encouraged to make greater use of graduate-led groups for children aged three and over?" What option is there for those who disagree with the premise of this question?

The Government acknowledges that the early years are a vital time in a child’s learning and development. It’s crucial, then, that they pay attention when a sector of professionals who work daily with families tell them that their policy will compromise the safety and quality of care for young children.

As the largest early years membership organisation in England, the Alliance is keen that the voice of the early years sector is heard by Government. For this to happen, a proper consultation, one that isn’t working to a predetermined conclusion, is needed.

When it comes to the early years, the child should always be the priority. The sector is willing to work constructively with Government and policy-makers to ensure this remains the case. It’s up to them to listen.

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