How will changing ratios affect childcare quality and costs?

Dr Sally Pearse, director of the Early Years Community Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University
Friday, May 27, 2022

Dr Sally Pearse of Sheffield Hallam University warns that the plans to change adult to child ratios in early years settings are 'flawed'

Dr Sally Pearse: 'Increasing the ratios will mean each child will have less individual attention at a time when this is most needed'
Dr Sally Pearse: 'Increasing the ratios will mean each child will have less individual attention at a time when this is most needed'

The recent announcement that the Department for Education is considering changing childcare ratios in nurseries – increasing the number of children one member of staff can care for - has been opposed by early years staff and parents alike.

The sector has raised concerns over government proposals to increase the number of two-year-olds that one member of staff can look after in early years settings in England from four to five.

Will Quince, the minister for children and families, said the Department’s plans, which will be consulted on over the summer, were about ‘improving flexibility and reducing the cost of childcare’.

But as someone with more than 20 years’ experience in early years education, I’m not sure they would achieve either.

The economic basis for the proposal is flawed but more importantly, it will undermine the power of early years to support children’s learning and development and improve outcomes at a time when it is most needed to address the impacts of the pandemic.

The focus on nurseries as a vehicle for supporting parental employment rather than one that can improve outcomes for young children misses the power of early years as a key vehicle in ‘levelling-up’. For children and families in areas of social and economic challenge a nursery can provide vital support for parents and for children’s early development and learning as well as identifying additional needs and referring to other agencies if required.

The two-year olds starting nursery this year or already attending are the babies of the pandemic. Their whole lives have been spent in a world of limited social interaction, financial pressures on parents and the disruption of the services and networks that usually support families with young children. Ofsted has recognised the significant impact of covid on young children’s development.

These children require skilled early years practitioners who will focus on identifying and meeting their needs and supporting their holistic development. Quality interactions between practitioners and children will particularly support the children’s social, emotional and language development – the foundations for later learning. Increasing the ratios will mean each child will have less individual attention at a time when this is most needed.

Increasing the ratios will not lead to a reduction in the cost to parents either as for many nurseries this small saving will be absorbed by other rising costs.

As well as rising costs, which are being felt by families and businesses across the country, the early years sector is facing a recruitment and retention crisis. Although on paper increasing the number of children a practitioner can look after could alleviate some of the staffing issues, the increased pressure it would place on those still working in the sector could exacerbate the situation.

It's no wonder that nurseries in areas of disadvantage are struggling to remain open due to the combined recruitment and retention crisis, lower numbers of working parents and increasing costs.

But it is exactly in these areas that quality early years education and care makes the most difference to children’s outcomes.

At Sheffield Hallam University we worked with local and national partners to set up the Early Years Community Research Centre, in the Shirecliffe area of Sheffield. The Centre is home to the Meadows Nursery, a community early years setting for two to five-year-olds.

It is the result of a unique partnership between Sheffield Hallam, Watercliffe Meadow School, Save the Children UK, and Sheffield City Council, which aims to give local children the best start in life.

The nursery also supports employment and volunteering with parents and carers in the area, and is a hub for research, which will benefit children across the UK through dissemination of findings and best practice across the early years sector. 

Partnerships like ours are few and far between in the sector and we’re unlikely to see many new settings opening in the current climate.

Rather than cutting ratios, the government should focus on supporting the economic wellbeing of the early years sector, particularly in areas of disadvantage, through other means.

This could include funding the Free Early Learning places for two-, three and four-year-olds at their actual economic cost and increasing the Early Years Pupil Premium (paid for children who would be entitled to free school meals) to the same level as in primary schools.

A recent survey of teaching staff, head teachers and deputy heads working in primary schools in England, found ‘alarming levels’ of pupils being unprepared for school. As a society we need to rethink early years education and funding, prioritising support for those who need it most.

Quality early years care is the foundation for achieving success throughout school and beyond. Regardless of ratios that is an equation I can get behind.

Dr Sally Pearse is director of the Early Years Community Research Centre, Sheffield Hallam University

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