Last week, the Department for Education released analysis suggesting that relaxing ratios would reduce the cost of childcare for parents by 28 per cent. In my column last month, I suggested that the Government must effectively be spending the same money twice if it was saying it could raise quality and cut prices at the same time. So, having seen reports of the Department for Education analysis suggesting I had been wrong, I had to take another look.
Of course, cheaper childcare without a loss of quality would be welcome news for cash-strapped parents. But the sad reality is that it is only possible because childcare workers are so poorly paid and becoming more qualified does not earn you very much more money. More Great Childcare shows that an ordinary childcare worker can expect to earn £13,300 a year. A supervisor will likely earn only £3,500 more.
We tend to think about ratios as protecting children, not so much the workforce. However, looking at how employment is evolving in other low-paid sectors suggests that they may afford some protection to childcare workers as well. At the sharp end of the growing jobs insecurity is the use of zero-hours contracts. In social care, more than 40 per cent of staff are now employed on a zero-hours contract. In childcare, ratios make it more difficult for employers to use these contracts.
Zero-hours contracts do not guarantee a specific number of hours of work. Work can vary weekly and can be withdrawn with little notice. The current estimate is that more than 200,000 people are on these contracts and this is sure to be an underestimate given that a lot of people sign up to a job without knowing they are accepting such a contract.
It is unclear from national data whether zero-hours contracts are already widely used by nurseries. But ratios definitely make it harder to tightly manage staffing according to demand and they may, therefore, guard against some of the sharpest employment practices. As Coalition wrangling over the ratio proposals continues, it is worth acknowledging that ratios may have a bigger impact on quality than we recognise.