Ministers are warned against relaxing rules on the number of children nurseries staff can care for, after it was revealed the regulations were being reviewed as a way to reduce costs for parents.
Raising the number of children per staff member or relaxing other rules is being considered by Children’s Minister Will Quince, who is undertaking an international comparison as part of attempts to tackle the cost of living crisis.
It comes amid evidence of spiraling childcare costs. A recent survey found that some pay as much or more for childcare as they do for their rent or mortgage, while 43% of working mothers said they were considering quitting their jobs due to high childcare costs. .
However, the authors of a government-commissioned study warned that reducing regulations would make the childcare staffing crisis even worse. Low-paid staff could leave, with no guarantee that the savings would be passed on to families, they said.
Quince caused immediate concern among nursery suppliers when he revealed he was looking into the issue last week. A 2013 study concluded that allowing more children per staff member would lead to “a reduction in quality”, adding: “Quality childcare is expensive, but there is little evidence that high fees are a function of regulatory requirements. However, the reverse is true: very lax regulatory regimes lead to poor quality supply.
Eva Lloyd, professor of early childhood at the University of East London and co-author of the report, said the report’s findings were “even more relevant today than they were then”. She said the so-called ‘relaxation of ratios’, which would allow staff to care for more children, ‘could spell disaster for the sector’.
“Current staff recruitment problems that already threaten quality are likely to be exacerbated by the easing of ratios,” she said. “More staff can leave – having to work even harder for abysmal rates of pay. The recent growth of large, private, for-profit childcare groups has reduced personnel costs, while parental fees have increased significantly. Professor Helen Penn, its co-author, agreed that relaxing the regulations would be “a very bad idea”.
The number of children a childminder can care for varies according to the environment in which she works, her qualifications and the age of the children. For crèches, one adult can take care of four two-year-old children. For children aged three and over, when one staff member has the appropriate qualifications, they can be responsible for 13 children.
Dr Sara Bonetti, director of early years at the Education Policy Institute, warned that comparisons with other nations were potentially misleading. “It is positive that the children’s minister wants to learn from successes abroad, but we will caution against comparisons,” she said. “Some European countries may have higher staff-to-child ratios, but it is important to note that their approaches to early childhood may be very different, with qualified staff at diploma or master’s level, and with a larger team. large number of support staff in place in environments that are not counted in the ratios.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said ministers were returning to an idea rejected by the government nine years ago after a backlash. “Relaxing the ratios will do little to reduce childcare costs and will simply put increasing and unnecessary pressure on an exhausted workforce. Education Ministers are well aware that we have a recruitment and retention crisis never seen before, so it is hard to believe they would want to consider such a short-sighted approach.
“Furthermore, it completely ignores the interests of the child. They are not a commodity in a financial calculation to balance the books.
Childcare costs have risen, with experts suggesting they will rise significantly this year. “Every business will see its costs rise due to rising National Insurance contributions and minimum wages,” said Ellen Broome, chief executive of the charity Coram Family and Childcare. “I don’t think the UK is an outlier [on regulations]. In fact, we have a fairly unqualified and poorly paid staff, compared to international.
Ministers are also said to be looking at other ways to help cover childcare costs. Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, recently said he was looking to “improve the cost, choice and availability of childcare”.
A government spokesperson said: ‘The first years of a child’s life are the most crucial, which is why we have invested over £3.5billion in each of the last three years to provide free childcare packages, including 30 hours per week for working parents, supporting thousands of families. We are also investing millions to transform services for parents, caregivers, babies and children, including through Family Hubs, where families can access important support services.
“We continue to look for ways to improve the cost, choice and availability of childcare, and at the same time we recently announced the largest-ever increase in the National Living Wage, from April 2022. , to support working families more broadly.”