The mystery of the ratios

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The Government fails to understand the complex relationship between early years settings and ratios, Sue Cowley writes.


Sue Cowley

The Government’s Review of Childcare Costs promises to increase the hourly rate of funding.

Any kind of increase is welcome, although it is not clear how the new funding will vary between local authorities. But one thing was obvious in the Review: the Government still does not understand the complex relationship between providers and statutory ratios. Sam Gymiah notes some business models do not make full use of the flexibility in the regulatory system.

The report talks about costs relating to ‘how flexibly the setting manages their staffing requirements’. Or in other words: settings should save money by increasing occupancy rates, using statutory ratios and minimising the number of staff employed.

This idea ignores the realities of operating an early years setting, and the human factors involved. At pre-school, we use a ratio of around one adult to five children, all year round. In part, these ratios are in response to the way staff and parents want us to run our setting. But we also use them because we have to.

On some days there are only a handful of children, but it is not safe for us to open with one member of staff. When older children move on to primary school, we could cut staff hours to the bone, but we have a settled team that we don’t want to disrupt. Although we must cut hours a little when numbers are low, we are acutely conscious this means lower wages. ‘Flexibility’ is a euphemism for cutting people’s pay.

The Government has also overlooked the fact that child numbers do not increase in an orderly fashion: we do not jump from eight children in a session to 16. Settings must have an additional staff member when they are one child over the statutory ratios, not at the point when the ratio is ‘full’. If you wanted to go into business and make a lot of profit, it is unlikely you would choose to open an early years setting. People come into the sector because they want to make a difference to young children’s lives. And cutting the pay of badly paid practitioners is no kind of way to do that.

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