Monday 14th November 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Carolyn Harris Portrait Carolyn Harris (in the Chair)
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Before I call the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) to open the debate, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that the petition being debated today indirectly relates to the death of Oliver Steeper last year. An inquest relating to the death of Oliver Steeper remains open, and a police investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death is ongoing, so Members should refrain from making any reference to those circumstances.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 615623, relating to staff-child ratios in early years childcare.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Harris. The petition, which was signed by more than 109,000 petitioners, states:

“The Government should not reduce the existing adult-child childcare ratios as has been suggested. There are surely better ways to reduce the cost of living—potentially endangering children in trusted care is not how it should be done.”

First and foremost, I thank Zoe and Lewis Steeper, who started the petition and are in the Public Gallery. Zoe and Lewis recently lost their son, Oliver, following an incident that occurred at his nursery. I want to convey my deepest condolences for their loss. On hearing the Government’s proposal to reduce childcare ratios in nursery settings, Lewis and Zoe started the petition to challenge the Government’s thinking. Over 109,000 people agree with them; I am sure that the number is higher, but that is how many people have physically signed their support.

I want to put on record my admiration for Zoe and Lewis for being such powerful advocates on this issue, despite how unimaginably challenging that must be, and for taking the time to speak to me ahead of the debate. I also thank the Early Years Alliance, the National Day Nurseries Association and the Education Policy Institute for sharing their expert insights with me in preparation for the debate.

We all know—I hope it is why we are in this room—that a functioning early years system is fundamental to driving a flourishing society and economy. We need to stop thinking about childcare as some sort of luxury. Instead we should think of it as the foundation of the best start to a child’s life and the best chance for our economy. Quality early education is a key determiner of children’s life outcomes. Access to childcare can also shape parents’ futures, allowing them the flexibility to choose if and when they want to work, yet when we look at which developed countries have the highest childcare costs, the UK consistently ranks among the highest on the list—and parents are really feeling it.

A recent survey by Pregnant Then Screwed found that childcare costs have forced 43% of mothers to consider leaving their jobs and 40% to consider leaving work. Is it not absurd that during an unprecedented cost of living crisis, in which our economy is bumping along the bottom, families with young children cannot afford to go to work? Our childcare and early years system is broken. It needs transforming into a modern, flexible system that will properly deliver for children, parents and our economy.

The Government recognise the issue—or they certainly claim to. In July, the Department for Education published a consultation on its proposals to improve the cost, choice and availability of childcare. Its plans include the relaxation of regulations on the care of two-year-olds in early years settings. Current rules require there to be at least one member of staff per four children aged two. The Government’s proposals would allow one staff member to care for up to five two-year-olds. That change, Ministers have claimed, will save £40 a week on childcare costs, but we have to ask ourselves: at what price? And is that £40 mythical or real?

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. I add my condolences to the parents of Oliver, who are here; they are very brave for joining us. On the point about the change of ratio increasing affordability, does the hon. Lady agree that 86% of providers say that Government funding for three-year-olds and four-year-olds does not cover their costs anyway, so changing the ratios is a red herring? The savings will not be passed on to parents struggling with the cost of living. More importantly, all the evidence shows—she referenced the Education Policy Institute—that in early years settings, the fewer children to adults, the better the learning outcomes, and that helps to reduce the attainment gap that she talked about.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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I agree with everything that the hon. Lady said. She put succinctly what I am about to say at much greater length.

For Oliver’s mum and dad, early years experts, the 109,000 people angry enough about the issue to sign the petition and, I suspect, most parents, these vital regulations help to protect the safety of children. I think everyone will agree that providing childcare comes with immense responsibility. From playtime to lunchtime to cleaning and changing, there are ever-present hazards for children. I am a mother of three, and I cannot imagine safely looking after four two-year-olds, unless they were kept in a contained space, with limited opportunity for physical movement and no opportunity for play, and away from all hazards. Of course, early years staff know the risks, and spend every working hour protecting children from them, but there is genuine apprehension that that may not be possible under the revised ratios.

A sense of acute concern came through to me in conversations that I had ahead of the debate. The warning from early years experts could not have been more stark: deregulating childcare ratios without making significant changes to training and funding will put the safety of young children at unacceptable risk. Staff are reportedly already leaving the sector because of the stress, and the overwhelming sense of responsibility to protect the best interests of children. Relaxing childcare ratios would heighten the potential for an accident, and increase the chances of an accident leading to an emergency. Parents share that fear.

Tulip Siddiq Portrait Tulip Siddiq (Hampstead and Kilburn) (Lab)
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I pay tribute to Lewis and Zoe for their bravery in being here and supporting us. My hon. Friend is talking about the physical danger that children could be in, and I am sure that she is about to get on to the impact on their mental health. I received an email from my constituent Magda, a child psychotherapist. She got in touch when she heard about the debate, because she is extremely worried about the impact that increasing the child-to-adult ratio will have on the mental health of vulnerable young people. Magda says that the plans, which follow a pandemic, lockdowns and a cost of living crisis, are expected to worsen her patients’ mental health. That will add to demand at both the private and NHS clinics that she works in. Will my hon. Friend talk about the impact of these budgetary savings on the mental health of our children?

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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I absolutely agree. I will go into more detail on the potential impact of the changes on the mental health, wellbeing and development of children, but there is a much broader point about the mental health of the childcare workforce, who will have to manage additional stress and responsibility, and of parents, who have expressed their concerns and anxiety about the changes. When a parent puts their child into a childcare setting, they have to be confident that it is right for their child.

In response to a poll conducted by Pregnant Then Screwed about the proposals, one parent—this very much goes to the point that my hon. Friend raised—commented:

“My child has severe allergies and [at] more than the current ratios I couldn’t cope with the anxiety of something being missed”.

Another shared similar concerns:

“This absolutely terrifies me… I’ve been so upset thinking about them being busier…what happens if they make a mistake with his food…what happens if they have less time to watch over him as he eats”,

and he gets sick? When parents take their child to nursery, they trust that their child will be provided with the best possible care, and that the whole system will prioritise their child’s safety. Parents understandably feel that the proposals risk betraying that trust. Deregulating the childcare ratios would endanger not just children’s wellbeing, but the quality of early years provision for many of them. Quality would be subject to a postcode lottery, or parents’ ability to pay.

Early education is vital to ensuring that children across the board, universally, have the best start in life. Evidence consistently proves that a child’s cognitive development and social and behavioural outcomes are largely determined by the early years input they receive. Quality early years education requires staff to give each child the right care and attention, and to identify their individual needs. It results in children feeling safe, secure, and able to learn. It involves well-managed risk taking, which is inherent in any play-based activity, and allows a child to learn independently, discover, explore and play. However, all these vital aspects of early years learning risk being lost if there are fewer adults per child.

Adults would have less time to pay individualised attention to each child, and that can potentially harm their ability to build strong relationships. Indeed, the Government’s own research found that lax ratio regulations would lead to poorer-quality provision. Staff would have fewer opportunities to identify special educational needs, which would lead to later diagnosis and poorer outcomes in later life. The Government’s own special educational needs and disabilities review warned against that, and it was highlighted as a specific concern by 90% of National Day Nurseries Association members.

The changes would limit the ability of early education to improve social mobility, and the most disadvantaged children would be the most likely to miss out. We risk creating a two-tier system, in which the families who can afford the least have no choice but to send their child to a 1:5 setting and receive a lower standard of care and education. That is not levelling up.

In its review of “Structural elements of quality early years provision”, the Education Policy Institute was clear:

“The evidence on child to staff ratios is fairly conclusive: having fewer children per staff leads to better children’s outcomes as it provides the opportunity for more individualised attention and leads to better teacher and child behaviour.”

We could almost say that it is child’s play—it is fairly obvious. In their response to the petition, the Government said they would not compromise on

“high quality early years provision for our youngest children”,

but expert opinion and evidence on this issue is conclusive: changes to early years ratios could put children’s development at risk and exacerbate the disadvantage gap.

Petitioners are particularly concerned about the timing of the proposals, given the challenges that young children face as a result of the pandemic—a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq). Ofsted has repeatedly warned of the serious impact that covid has had on early learning and development in the past two years. Its most recent report showed that children are lacking the expected communication and motor skills, have reduced independence, and are often referred for additional support. Now more than ever, children attending early years settings need more individualised care, support and stimulation, but these proposals will deliver the exact opposite. Is this really the future we want for our children?

We have to recognise the impact that the proposals would have on early years staff. For many years, the childcare sector has been desperate for support in tackling its growing recruitment and retention crisis. A survey carried out by the Early Years Alliance found that eight in 10 providers find it difficult to recruit staff, with over a third of the workforce actively considering leaving the sector. That has directly impacted the availability of childcare, as more settings are struggling to offer their normal sessions and parents are becoming unable to access any services at all. The Early Years Commission found that work demands are a key factor in turnover. Wages are painfully low, averaging less than the minimum wage, and professional development is almost non-existent.

Those who are left in this ever-shrinking workforce are simply exhausted. The Early Years Commission said that early years practitioners are “underpaid, overworked and undervalued”, yet the proposed changes to the ratios will only increase the demands. Already stretched staff will be forced to care for even more children, with no promise of improved pay, development or better working conditions. It cannot be overstated how damaging that would be for staff morale when the feeling of neglect by the Government is already widespread in the sector.

The change would have devastating consequences for the childcare system. In an Early Years Alliance survey of nursery and pre-school staff, 75% of respondents said that they would likely leave if ratios were relaxed in their setting. Take that in for a moment: three quarters of our early years workforce will potentially be gone. Our childcare system is already on its knees. It is desperate for support and change, and I simply do not know how it would survive the exodus of staff following the Government’s proposed change.

Having touched on the main concerns highlighted by parents and providers, I want to reflect on what the Government have to say about the proposals. In response to the petition, the Department for Education said:

“This change would align the English system to that of Scotland.”

It emphasises:

“we have no evidence to suggest that the Scottish model is unsafe, and evidence shows high parental satisfaction rates.”

It also highlighted:

“England’s statutory minimum staff to child ratios for 2-year-olds are among the highest in Europe.”

If we take those claims at face value, they appear to be true, but I cannot help but question the Government’s sincerity, when they must know they are comparing apples and pears. It is true that, north of the border, only one member of staff is required to be present for every five children aged two, yet those settings are also required to have a lead practitioner who is qualified to degree level, and all other entry-level workers must have the Scottish equivalent of an English level 2 NVQ. Those qualification expectations far exceed those in England, where successive Governments have failed to upskill early years practitioners into a professionalised workforce. Here, childcare providers caring for children aged two are expected to have at least one member of staff who holds a level 3 qualification, and only half of the other staff members are required to hold an approved level 2.

The differences do not stop there. Early years staff in Scotland can expect continuous professional development through the skills investment plans. All staff delivering the funded entitlement of childcare are guaranteed the real living wage. Scotland also has a different curriculum and a different quality framework, and progress is measured against an entirely different set of criteria. As Jane Malcolm from the National Day Nurseries Association says:

“It’s like comparing apples to pears—it’s a very different system in place to ensure quality for children. It’s not just a numbers game.”

The Government’s cynical attempt to cherry-pick aspects of early years models continues with their reference to Europe; that is another comparison where the headline figures do not reflect the more complex truth. Our child-led, play-based approach to early years provision differs from the adult-led, table-based focus often evident in countries across Europe. Given our greater focus on riskier, play-based approaches, is it not natural that there be a requirement for tighter supervision of children in England?

The system differences continue. Staff in Europe tend to be more qualified—generally to a degree or masters level—and the OECD noted that European settings tend to have a wider team of support staff, who are not included in the child ratios. For example, French settings have additional ancillary staff, who give support on tasks such as food preparation and nappy changing. Those are among the duties that early years staff in England have highlighted as being at greatest risk.

What about a European country that, despite all those considerations, genuinely does have less-regulated childcare? If we look at the example of the Netherlands, in 2005, a series of reforms led to an increasingly deregulated early years system. A major part of those reforms was the relaxation of ratios, although those were for childminders rather than within childcare settings. Nevertheless, the consequences of those changes are worth considering as part of this discussion.

The Institute for Public Policy Research found that the 2005 reforms had variable impacts on childcare quality and actually led to a 43% rise in unsatisfactory providers. The process of deregulation also increased the amount of part-time and lower-paid work, especially among women. Those are all outcomes that I would hope we would be trying to avoid, not exacerbate.

Even if we consider childcare ratios in early years settings, the outlook is similarly bleak. In the Netherlands, only one adult is required to care for eight two-year-olds, a ratio significantly more relaxed than in England, yet one look at worker satisfaction tells us that it is not working either. At the end of 2021, the early years workforce actually went on strike to protest against workload pressure. How did the trade union propose solving the problem? By reducing the number of children per adult and hiring additional staff.

It seems telling that, where we have evidence of a deregulated system, the measures seem to have worsened the problems in childcare service, not improved them. Given that the Government have proved unable to cope with the litany of strikes across our economy already, might I suggest they would want to avoid triggering some more?

Finally, I want to interrogate just one more of the Department for Education’s claims, which I am sure the Minister will respond to in due course. It is perhaps the boldest claim, and has been mentioned already—that the reforms could save parents £40 a week in childcare costs. I do not want to bore everyone with the maths that has gone into how that number has been worked out, but it is important to understand where it has come from. It has been calculated on the basis that staff costs per child would be reduced, and that those savings would, automatically, be passed on to parents.

There are, however, a number of assumptions that should be questioned. To begin with, there is the assumption that childcare settings would go ahead and implement the changes; it would happen across the board. However, is that likely to happen? Not all settings will have the physical capacity to increase the number of children under their care. Given that there are also legal limits on the safe space for each child, which the Government have not consulted on, it cannot be guaranteed that all pre-school settings will even have the space to implement the changes. That puts into question the £40 figure.

We also know from the reaction to this petition that the early years sector is opposed to making these changes, and that is reflected in the statistics. Already, around half of providers are not working to existing maximum ratios. Some 74% of providers told the National Day Nurseries Association that they would not implement the reduced ratios, and around nine in 10 pre-schools told the Early Years Alliance that they opposed the principle of relaxing ratios altogether.

The Government might argue that that leaves choice in the system, but the reality is that some providers will feel forced to relax their ratios against their better judgment. Extreme financial pressures are crippling the sector, and it is possible that some settings may have no choice in order to stay open. Even in those circumstances—the very worst-case scenarios—it is unlikely that those savings would be passed on to parents. Indeed, just 2% of nurseries and pre-schools believe that relaxed ratios would lower their fees. Providers are grappling with inflation and the costs associated with a Government that have knowingly underfunded the sector for many years. Many do not have the financial capacity to even open full time. Any improvements to income that relaxing childcare ratios could bring would be spent on maintaining their own survival.

The plans seem completely unworkable to me. They are entirely unsupported. I searched far and wide in preparation for this debate and could not find one expert who thought they were a good idea. I found many experts who tried to work out why it might be a good idea, but nobody who concluded it was. I am interested to hear the Government’s presentation of the evidence that suggests it is.

Deregulated ratios are unlikely to be implemented, at least not by choice. If they are, they do not seem set to deliver the Government promise of reduced costs for parents. The Government know that. Indeed, when speaking about the proposals, the former Minister for Children and Families, the hon. Member for Colchester (Will Quince), said:

“The ratios change in and of itself is no silver bullet or panacea or magic bullet…it is not going to significantly change costs because what we don’t expect is settings to routinely or religiously go to 1:5”.

We have to question the point of the proposals if they would not even achieve the Government’s stated aim, Are they just a sticking plaster on a gaping wound in our childcare sector so that the Government can say that they are doing something?

As I draw to a close, I want to revisit the subject that I opened with: a childcare system in crisis. Our early years provision is not working. I think we can all agree on that. It is not working for families, providers or our economy. Parents have faced such extraordinary costs that they have been unable to go to work. Providers are being pushed into debt with rising numbers of closures. The overworked and underappreciated workforce is at breaking point, and children risk being denied the best possible early education. Childcare is a vital social and economic infrastructure. It is as important to our country as the roads, rail and our healthcare system, but it is crying out for support. We are in desperate need of a system that truly reflects the modern life of families in this country and meets those demands.

The only solution that the Government have offered does not give much hope for the future. Deregulation of our childcare ratios risks the safety of our children. It jeopardises their development and could engender a workforce crisis bigger than the sector already faces. The proposals are premised on falsehoods and misleading comparisons, and the likelihood that they would even be implemented is doubtful. Despite that, the Prime Minister claimed it is an ambitious plan, but I think most people can see that it is far from that.

The Government should take steps to strengthen our childcare system and improve the quality of early years provision. To try to get rid of standards, or weaken them, is a race to the bottom in which our children will be the biggest losers, and they deserve better than that.

In response to the petition, I have a few questions to put to the Minister. Can she confirm that, within the existing childcare system in England, relaxing childcare ratios as proposed would not put the safety of young children at risk, as parents and expert opinion fear? Can she confirm that any proposals to change childcare ratios will not harm the learning and development of children, as the early years sector and parents fear? Have the Government assessed what impact changing early years ratios will have specifically on children with special educational needs and disabilities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds? Given the responses to the consultation and the petition, will the Government still claim that the changes will save families £40 a week, or will they revise that figure in light of the evidence? Can the Minister provide any analysis about the impact that ratio changes would have on the early years workforce? Finally, if they do push ahead with the changes, will the Government also propose alongside them professional development of our early years workforce, including funding the provision of paediatric first-aid training?

In conclusion, I want to put one final question to the Minister, which comes from Zoe and Lewis, Oliver’s parents, who started the petition and are here with us today. It cuts to the chase: would Government Ministers be happy to put their two-year-old child in a 1:5 setting?

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to see you and your pink hair in the Chair, Ms Harris. It is not often that is said in this Chamber. I thank the petitioners, including a number of my constituents, for signing the e-petition. I thank those in the Public Gallery who have come to watch, and, of course, Zoe and Lewis for being here today. They are very brave.

I speak as constituency MP for Winchester, and in my capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for childcare and early education. I will start with what I always say in these debates: early years education should be thought of and seen in terms of quality, not in terms of quantity. Investment early in a child’s life pays dividends later on as they move through the system. The impact upon a child’s future is priceless. Internationally, the UK has the second lowest level of Government investment in the early years, but the highest level of investment from parents. Thus, parents have every right to ask for the very best. I know that is what the early education professionals, whom I speak to all the time, seek to provide. I declare my interest in that I am married to an early years worker—so I had better be good.

My view is that increasing ratios would have an adverse effect on that quality. Seeing as the ratios are where they are now, it is incumbent on those who propose to change them to explain why I am wrong in that thesis. The stated intention of the last Prime Minister and the Prime Minister before last to change the ratios—potentially abolishing them altogether—would not, as hoped for, improve flexibility or reduce the cost of childcare. Research from Coram suggests that a full-time nursery for children under the age of two costs almost 66%—two thirds—of a parent’s weekly take-home pay in England.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) set out in her excellent opening remarks, if the proposed reforms are to save money for parents in the cost of living crisis—a perfectly sensible and laudable aim—the evidence to back that up has to be laid before us and the Government have to show their workings out. I am not deaf to those arguments; I am perfectly willing to hear them and happy to see those figures—but see those figures, I must.

Early years settings have expressed concerns to me, and to those of us on the all-party group, that the relaxation of staffing ratios raises the risk of accidents for young children due to fewer staff needing to provide the same quality of care to a greater number of children.

Vicky Ford Portrait Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con)
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I thank my hon. Friend for everything he does for the early years sector. I also give my condolences to Zoe and Lewis for their tragic loss. In my constituency of Chelmsford, people want to have outstanding childcare, and, like others across the country, they care about the safety of their children. As a mother who once had three under four, I know what tight ratios mean. But people are also concerned about the affordability of childcare. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that when looking at the issue of international comparisons on ratios, one should try to compare apples with apples? We have to look at not just the staffing numbers but the investment in qualifications. Does he agree with me that the Minister is right to look at rations, but needs to ensure that those comparisons are done on a level playing field, taking into account those other considerations too?

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine
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I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend, the former Minister. As set out in the opening speech, the situation is very different in Scotland; there are different qualification levels. Also, in Scotland practitioners have to register with the Scottish Social Services Council in order to work in early years, and they have to commit to continuing professional development qualification levels to do that. The hourly rate is also higher. I do think it is different. My right hon. Friend referred to having had three children—I only have two. Yes, it is about the qualification, but it is also simply a numbers game and about having eyes on the child. Our two children are 12 and 15 next week—it is a busy month—but when they were small, my wife and I would divide and rule. We had a 1:1 ratio. When we were looking after their cousins, the ratio went up and it was more challenging. Clearly, I am not suggesting a 1:1 ratio in early years education, but why on earth would we want to go the other way in a setting where children potentially spend seven or eight hours a day for five days a week? I question it but, as I say, show me the money. Show me the evidence, show me the workings out and show me the savings, and then we can make an informed judgment.

There are concerns among providers and parents about settings having the capacity to support children with any additional needs, such as children with SEND, who may need more, rather than less, time with educators. I know the Minister will touch on this issue in her remarks. My fear, and that of providers and parents, is that a further ratio reduction would reduce the capacity and parental confidence even further, potentially driving more exclusion in early years education.

Another point is that current staffing ratios reflect the requirements for facilities and space set out in the Ofsted framework, which is very clear. It would therefore be troubling if the Department contradicted the guidance of the official regulator. If we were to proceed with reducing staff to child ratios, do Ministers intend to consult on changing the Ofsted framework? Of course, that would require a statutory consultation.

I have said that good early years education is vital to supporting our young people to develop, and Ofsted has identified children aged two to three as needing a particular focus on speech and language in order to build necessary communication skills for later in life. More children per staff member can only mean less time per child. Why is that particularly acute right now? Because of the pandemic, young children who started nursery in September do not have the socialisation skills that my children had in the years before they started in early years education, so I would suggest that that is even more important than ever right now.

Let me give some figures. Some 52% of early years staff say their workload and a lack of work-life balance are a cause of stress or unhappiness for them. With the existing ratios, staff are under pressure—I hear that every night at home—and they tell me they are worried about the time they are able to give each child in their care. We face a staffing challenge in the early years sector, and staff are leaving the sector, with many choosing careers in retail with fewer hours but similar, or even greater, levels of pay. Data from the University of Leeds shows a post-pandemic net loss of workers from the sector above and beyond the usual churn of staff, and I often make the point that dog-sitters in my area are often paid more than the people who look after our most precious asset. Dogs are precious too, but they are not our children.

On Saturday I was out in my constituency, talking to constituents. I spoke to a lady in Winchester who said that she was very worried about the nursery round the corner—I will not identify it, for obvious reasons—because it is losing the key worker who looks after her young daughter. It is really disruptive for her young daughter, and she is very worried about it. The nursery is losing that key worker because she is going to work in an office job, as she can get paid better and probably have a lot less stress. This is the reality of life. As the new Minister—obviously, she is a constituency MP as well—gets out and about, I dare to say that she will hear that more and more from the people she meets in the sector.

I would suggest that increasing the number of children each member of staff is working with or responsible for will only increase the pressure and stress within the workforce, and more of these vital workers will leave the sector, which already faces a recruitment and retention crisis. That will drive up costs for parents and exacerbate the financial problems in the sector, with over 84% of providers telling the APPG on childcare and early education that they expect to operate at a loss or merely break even this year—up from just over half in 2018. Nursery and early education providers said it is more difficult to recruit, and some 20% of childminders told us that they did not think they would be working in the sector in six months’ time. Many of those people are concerned about working with new ratios, in what they regard as potentially unsafe conditions.

One nursery worker wrote to me to say that the changes to ratios gave her “nightmares”; she said that the situation was like an episode of “Crimewatch”. Another said that she was “extremely concerned” about the additional pressure on staff, “both physically and emotionally”. I have seen figures that suggest that almost two thirds of practitioners could leave the sector if ratios went in the wrong direction. That is not just a figure; parents across the country will be unable to find good childcare and early education for their children to enable them to go to work and feed the workforce—a challenge in many other parts of the economy. This is not just a childcare story. Childcare is to the economy what social care is to the NHS. If we do not get this right, the economy will slow down, and heaven knows that right now we need the economy to speed up. We need growth.

Staff are referencing workload, stress and burnout as key concerns. I am not defending the current way of working as being perfect—far from it. The all-party group that I chair has for a while been calling for a wholesale review of childcare and early education, and we will write to the new Chair of the Education Committee when they are elected on Wednesday to request that review. I have already spoken to some of those standing for that position, two of whom are in this room.

In conclusion, we do not need a change in ratios. We need a wholesale, fact-based review of childcare and early education that focuses on the workforce, parents and, ultimately—the most important stakeholder—children. Our children deserve nothing less. I have already spoken to the new Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), about the issue. I congratulate her on her position. She is a thinker and a serious person, and I really look forward to working with her. I respectfully ask her to meet my all-party group as soon as possible; we look forward to that conversation.

Justin Tomlinson Portrait Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris.

As a parent myself, my heart breaks for the unimaginable loss suffered by Oliver Steeper’s parents. It is every parent’s worst nightmare. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), who was passionate in advocating the serious points that drove 109,000 people—a huge number—to sign the petition, which is why so many of us are here.

I believe it is the Minister’s debut. There is nothing worse in such circumstances as being asked direct questions, so I thought I would help her by answering one of the key questions put by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North. Would I want my daughters in a setting with a changed ratio? Absolutely not. I very much hope we can get clarity on that point.

I pay tribute to the new Minister, who was kind enough to visit my constituency on Thursday. She came to the fantastic Imagination Childcare nursery in Moredon. The owner, Becky Cruise, and her wonderful team were incredibly proud, because the Minister not only took time to tour all the rooms, and to engage and interact with the children—including decorating biscuits with my daughter Margot, who was very excited to meet one of my London office friends; she also took the time to have a roundtable with Becky and Councillor Jo Morris, who owns the Playsteps Day Nursery in my constituency. Believe me, Jo is a resident expert on all things nursery related. I do not think I have ever been lobbied as hard as I have by her.

The visit was a real opportunity. I have hosted countless ministerial and shadow ministerial visits over the years, but the Minister was genuinely willing to listen, to be challenged and to take points on board. Even though she is so new to her brief, she has complete oversight of the issues, so I am excited to hear her response to the debate—no pressure.

On the visit, we covered challenges and opportunities, including the key matter that we are discussing today: ratios. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North on the subject; we are in complete agreement. We should simply rule out the changes. Scotland is sometimes held up as some sort of brilliant panacea, but where are the Scottish MPs to advocate how well the change has gone there? That is telling.

I pay tribute to the National Day Nurseries Association. It did some detailed research, which is pretty black and white: 90% of providers find it hard to recruit level 3 staff, and of the staff who are unhappy and thinking of leaving, 52% are thinking of leaving because of the workload. Clearly, if we change the ratios, the workload goes up.

My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) was on the money when he talked about how hard it is when two parents are caring for two children. How on earth will nurseries do it day in, day out if we change the ratios? On the nursery visit, we saw that the big challenge comes particularly with those children who are toilet training, which requires them to be taken out of the room. That means that those eyes on the prize are not in the room, and children do not necessarily have set toilet breaks—believe me, I know. It is all about quality, and I cannot see a single argument that changing ratios would improve quality. We all visit our local schools. Primary schools in particular emphasise that the early years are so important for children’s expected levels and it is incredibly difficult to catch up further down the line.

The Government have been trying to make a significant positive difference in this area. They have spent more than £20 billion over the last five years, rapidly expanded the 15 and 30-hour term-time free childcare and made crucial changes to universal credit that allow people to claim up to 85% of childcare costs. Those measures have been a real game changer in helping more working parents back into work and providing greater flexibility.

There is still a funding challenge around the fact that, predominantly, nursery jobs are relatively low paid. Therefore, as we have rightly increased the national living wage above inflation year in, year out, it has exceeded the increases in funding that the Government have provided. That has put real pressure on nurseries, and the rules on how they can secure additional income to balance the books are very strict. That all puts pressure on capacity.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester highlighted fears of nurseries leaving the sector. I represent a constituency that has a transient population. People tend to move to my constituency, so they do not necessarily have a network of older generations who can step in. Their ability to work and contribute to a growing economy is predicated on access to childcare, which can be difficult. There are waiting lists, and it is not a given that people can secure a place. People can always secure a school place, but that is not the case for nurseries.

We therefore have to get a grip on the funding. The Minister could do some digging in some cupboards, because in 2017 there was an independent review of the cost of childcare and the impact on providers, which was meant to be published but has not yet been seen. That would be helpful in identifying what funding is needed to ensure that nurseries are on a sustainable and positive footing, so that they can remain and, crucially, expand.

We can help on issues around Ofsted. It was highlighted, not unreasonably, that that is a real fear factor for staff. One day every four or five years, the nursery will be reviewed. Not all children perform the tasks that they are presented with on the days when the inspectors come, and that puts big pressure on nurseries. They could have had 364 other days in the year when all those tasks went well and would have looked good to an inspector. The day that the inspectors come can make a crucial difference. In our roundtable discussion, there was a feeling that there needs to be greater consistency, so that when inspectors come everybody knows what is expected and they will be reviewed on that. There needs to be a greater emphasis, or perhaps a sole emphasis, on safeguarding, so that it is the priority. We need to give the whole system confidence that it is consistent and fair, and that those nurseries that are doing an amazing and wonderful job are recognised for that.

We also need to play fair between school-based nurseries and nurseries in independent settings. In questions in the main Chamber, I have raised the fact that standalone nurseries have to pay business rates, yet nurseries based in school settings do not. A standalone nursery is surely an educational setting; it is Ofsted rated. The current situation is inconsistent and unfair. In one nursery I visited, the business rates equated to about £100 per child, which could make a big difference if it went towards providing additional support. It is also a limit on some nurseries’ ability to expand, because if someone runs multiple nurseries, the business rates are caught all together and it affects whether they can apply for the discount. Some nurseries seek not to expand to avoid that situation.

Another big ask—I know the Minister is passionate about this point—relates to providing the support that nurseries need. Nurseries are fantastic at childcare provision, but increasingly, with a greater awareness of special educational needs provision and additional support—I say this as a former Minister for Disabled People—they are crying out for advice so they can do it right. The guidebooks do not necessarily give definitive information on every unique set of circumstances. At the roundtable we held, we heard one example of a delay of six months to get training on the use of EpiPens. In reality, a nursery would either have to take the risk, or say to that child—and crucially, their parents—that they could not take them on for six months because of the potential consequences.

Too often there are backlogs in accessing diagnoses. It is frustrating for nurseries, which, because they work with the children day in, day out, are often the first to identify the additional support that is needed, but are not given greater weight in the process. There should be a two-track process so they could directly feed in and populate much of the evidence required. That would take some of the pressure off the system that is trying to deal with the backlogs.

Finally, both Becky and Jo highlighted that if there were better support, greater consistency, some movement on the funding and we did not go down the ratios path, they would be desperate to expand, because their respective nurseries are full. I return to the powerful point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester: if we are to support a growing economy, we need to make provision for an increasingly flexible workforce. We need people like Becky and Jo, who have amazing nurseries, to be able to expand; we would all benefit from that.

David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Harris. I offer my condolences to Mr and Mrs Steeper. I hope that one of the messages from today’s debate will be a recognition that there are many Members of Parliament, including myself, who are parents of very young children and recognise that story as the ultimate nightmare for any parent, and who are therefore committed to helping the Government find a way to address the issue constructively.

I will set out a bit of the context that I learned about during my time in local government as the lead member for children’s services. I hope to offer the Minister some constructive suggestions about how the Government might take forward some of the issues raised in the consultation, in the petition and in today’s debate.

The guidance on staff-to-child ratios stems from the Children Act. The primary purpose of that legislation and that guidance is managing risk. We need to be cautious about the idea that a ratio of 1:4 equals safe, but 1:5 equals dangerous. Research from the Thomas Coram Research Institute at the Institute of Education highlights that the way in which the ratio is calculated varies quite a lot. Some nurseries do it by dividing the total number of full-time equivalent staff by the number of children on roll; others by the number of staff on shift at a given time, divided by the number of children in attendance at that time; and others based on inspection of how many staff members are visible in a particular space compared with the number of children at a given moment. They are all valid ways of calculating the ratio, but give significantly different variations in the numbers of adults and children who are physically present.

There is a world of difference between some of the staff I met at my children’s nursery—which was provided by the London Borough of Hillingdon—who had 30 or 40 years’ experience in childcare and had been on every conceivable training course from paediatric resuscitation and emergency treatment to handling various complex medical conditions, and those who may be doing their first day on the job as a child carer; and many Members have highlighted that point today. Ministers from all parties have been under pressure for many years to make the money go further, but it is right that they consider that context as they look at the issue. This is not as exact a science as some would like to think. Our key approach must be to manage the risks that occur in these kinds of settings, so that children are as safe as possible.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) clearly made the point—it is borne out well by the research—that the money that we spend on the early years has the most impact on a child’s outcomes of the money that we spend at any stage of education. When we look at how the funding formula is distributed nationally, it is the opposite way around. We spend most money on the GCSE years, when it has comparatively less impact and benefit for a child; and, relatively speaking, less is spent on support for early years. The data held by the Children’s Commissioner—produced by data expert Leon Feinstein—highlights that we can predict a child’s A-level results based on their attainment in the early years foundation stage. We have good evidence that this is not merely a matter of supposition, but that there is a direct correlation between the impact of early education and a child’s outcomes when they start adulthood.

As we consider possible solutions, the Government must be commended for the fact that, for the first time, we have a comprehensive early years national funding formula, which was introduced in 2017. It seeks to bridge the gap between the day-to-day realities of nursery life in a complex sector—we have private, voluntary and independent providers, as well as the statutory sector in the form of school nurseries—and the desire to ensure that parents generally, but especially women, are able to return to the workforce because affordable childcare is available.

Three elements make up the national funding formula. There is the universal base rate, which is a figure that is determined nationally; that will be challenging, because it is the biggest part of the formula for the Government to look at. There is also an additional needs factor, which reflects the requirements of children with special educational needs and disabilities, and the area cost adjustment, which is designed to take into account the differential cost of providing nursery care in different parts of the country.

As a Member of Parliament representing an outer London constituency, I hear daily from businesses generally, and from nursery providers in particular, that the remarkably high costs of employment make it difficult to recruit and retain the qualified staff they require. Although I recognise the financial challenges facing the Government, if they have an opportunity to look at doing something with the area cost adjustment, I suspect it would make the lives of all Members of Parliament easier when it comes to ensuring that their local nursery and childminder sectors are properly supported. That would be enormously helpful.

It is clear that the way in which the funding is distributed—in particular, the role of early years representatives at schools forums where decisions are made about dividing up that funding—could be strengthened. The fragmentation of a sector with large numbers of quite small providers means that compared to big secondary schools, for example, it is hard to get people at the table who are real experts in the way that the funding can be distributed. If we can do that much more effectively, the flexibility that exists in the remit of those schools forums would enable a greater degree of support and local nuance to reflect the particular challenges that a community faces in the distribution of funding, especially when it comes to the creation of new provision in response to emerging needs.

The Government have done a great deal with policies such as tax-free childcare and the early years pupil premium to put additional resource into the sector to reflect the complexity of children’s needs, although there are more opportunities that are about not just additional resources—strong though the case for them is—but the way in which the money is distributed. Rather than having to consider easing childcare ratios as a way of making the budget go further, we can ensure that the money that is already contained in the early years national funding formula finds its way more effectively and flexibly through the system to support the sector to do the outstanding job we all want to see it do for all our children.

Siobhan Baillie Portrait Siobhan Baillie (Stroud) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris. I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on her great speech about a fantastic petition. My notes say, “Don’t cry,” but I might. Lewis, I watched your BBC interview; I know your aim is to enshrine Oliver’s memory, and his name will be recorded in Hansard repeatedly today. The fact that you are able to find strength from your grief to try to help others is incredibly inspiring.

I have been campaigning on childcare for as long as I have been an MP. I have now bothered three Prime Ministers and four Chancellors, one of whom is now the Prime Minister, and I know they all care deeply about this issue. I want to see action and I do not think it is right to criticise the Government for looking into the issue of childcare ratios, which I will come to in a moment. We are right to reform the childcare system. We are spending £5 billion to £6 billion of taxpayers’ money on various different schemes that work for some families but are perceived to be failing for many others.

I am doing some work on the childcare element of universal credit. That needs reform because parents say that they cannot go to work or that it is not worth them going to work. Brilliant mums and dads are really feeling the pinch on the cost of childcare. Parents in the UK currently spend 26% of their entire household budget on childcare, and the proportion is 20% for single parents. The OECD average is 10%, but the UK figure is 26%, whereas in the USA it is 14% and in Canada it is 12%. As I said to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s questions last week, we have to make the system work and ensure that providers do not go belly up. There are some fantastic childcare providers in Stroud who are incredibly worried at the moment, so it is great to have this debate.

If we are going to change childcare ratios, I want to hear from the Government about the impact on safety. We may not be able to hear about that in full today, not least because it is the debut response to a debate by the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), but what is the safety impact? Show us the evidence. I know she is looking carefully at all the evidence and safety impacts, but will she tell us whether a change to the childcare ratio will reduce fees for parents? Will it increase salaries for early years staff, which is something we desperately need? Will it offer flexibility to providers? We have heard from many providers that they do not want to take up any change to childcare ratios, but is more flexibility good for the sector?

I am concerned about changing ratios now because of the issues we face in the workforce. I want the issue flushed out. It is has been going around in circles since at least 2013, when my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) held the position now held by my hon. Friend the Minister, and we know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) wanted to look at the issue when he was Prime Minister. On the surface, my right hon. Friends are right that England has stricter ratios in comparison to other countries. For children aged two in France and Canada, the ratio is one trained adult to eight children. In Australia, that ratio is one trained adult to five children, and in Japan it is one trained adult to six children. There are no limits at all in Denmark, Germany or Sweden.

As we have heard from other Members, the question is whether other countries have more relaxed ratios partly because their workforce is more qualified. The parents present today have set the challenge of putting safety first. It is wrong to assume that if ratios are relaxed, nurseries in England will suddenly be able to take in more toddlers without employing more staff, because our current workforce do not feel able or qualified to a high enough standard to look after those children.

Also, child-to-staff ratios could not be changed without adjusting the space ratios, as we have heard from a number of Members. Many providers are at capacity with the amount of children they have in the space, so relaxing child-to-staff ratios would not result automatically in providers being able to care for more children. Nurseries would have to look at other premises, and we know the costs they would face to change them.

I have briefings on this coming out of my ears. People really care, and I thank the NDNA, Pregnant Then Screwed, Coram, Mumsnet and all who have been speaking to parents and providers throughout the country for an extremely long time. Gloucestershire PATA, with which I had a Zoom conversation about the concerns for Gloucestershire providers, wrote:

“Having one practitioner looking after four 2-year-olds is already challenging, especially in small settings (which many are in Gloucestershire). This may mean that there are only two practitioners looking after 8 children in a room. The minute that a child within that group needs 1:1 care, one practitioner is occupied and the other required to supervise the remaining 7 children. In the course of a day this may happen many times, with for example a child who misses the potty and needs changing, along with the cleaning of the area where the accident happened, or a child who…needs reassurance…This is in addition to routine nappy changing, preparation of snack and the myriad other tasks which need to happen for the day to run smoothly.”

Earlier, I was preparing to go on the BBC and I was so stressed that my daughter was still in a Hallowe’en costume when I was trying to get out of the house. My hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) talked about the ability to man-mark of the parent of two children, or even one, and I take my hat off to the early years educators who deal with multiple children.

I want to focus on childcare ratios, because that is the issue of the day. I know the Minister is completely seized of the issue as we have had many conversations, and I constantly take it to Cabinet—to anyone who will listen to me. We need wider reform. My message to parents and everyone present is that the Government’s suggestion to look at childcare ratios was just one part of a wider review of childcare; it was never going to be the only thing. I also think it is right that it is investigated fully, so that we can flush out and understand the evidence, with safety absolutely at the top of the agenda.

Improving childcare is future-building for our society and our country. It is crucial to the economy to get more parents into work, if that is what they want to do, in order to improve the productivity of this great country. We must stop suggesting that childcare and early years are an add-on to education. The Minister is in the Department for Education, and we are talking about year-zero educators in our early years settings. We have to value, pay and champion them as much as we possibly can. I look forward to hearing from the Minister.

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) on leading the debate, and the family on showing great bravery in coming forward to champion this issue in the way they have. The circumstances of any death of that nature are deeply concerning and must of course be investigated properly.

I agree with one of the things the hon. Lady said in her opening speech: a functioning early years system is fundamental to our society and economy. I agree profoundly with that. In my time as Schools Minister, I saw the increasing awareness among schools of the importance of the early years support that children were getting, whether in nurseries or school-based settings, and the concern in our primary sector about school readiness, often driven by the circumstances of some of those children who had not had the opportunity to engage with early years provision or to attend nursery. Getting that right is crucial.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) both made the point about the UK having some of the highest costs for childcare. In that context, I wonder whether the putative figure—even if we accept that £40 per week is right—would make a substantial difference to the overall position. I wholly agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North about one-to-one attention and careful risk management—the careful assessment of risks taken in play. All of those are arguments for having the right ratios. They are also arguments for having better trained staff and for making sure that we reward investment in the professionalisation of childcare, professional development and pathways for progression in early years settings.

I was looking, as my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned—there is a Select Committee election under way—at some of the past reports by the Education Committee. In its report on tackling disadvantage in early years it discussed a lack of clarity on progression routes and apprenticeships for the sector, and challenged the Government to do more in that space. It talked about the lack of a workforce strategy for early years. I recognise that the Government have invested more in professional development for early years since the report was published, but there is more that can be done and we need to continue to look at that.

I know from speaking to early years professionals in my constituency—there are some brilliant people who work in that space, including Alice Bennett, who runs the Worcester Early Years Centre and started off in a fantastic farm-based early years setting just outside my patch in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Harriett Baldwin)—that they have a passion for driving continuous improvement in their workforce. As we have heard, in an environment in which early years has to compete with local supermarkets raising wages and becoming more competitive by offering flexible hours, retaining those great professionals is a key challenge, and we must make sure that we can reward the early years workforce appropriately. That is vital.

We have heard a lot about different ratios in different countries. I accept part of the argument made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North that we should not compare apples with pears. It is important to compare people with similar qualification levels. I remember attending the international summit on the teaching profession and being grilled by many international colleagues about the ratios in England compared with other countries. The general consensus of Education Ministers from other countries was that ours were on the low end. It is important that we do the research to look at the qualification levels that are required and how we get this right.

Part of the Labour Government’s original idea for devolution was that we should be able to experiment with different approaches in different parts of the UK, and we should be able to learn from that. I take the point that if Scotland does this with greater assurance and higher qualification levels, we need to look at that before we change the numbers. We should learn from what takes place in devolved parts of the United Kingdom. We should also learn from the approaches taken by our fellow English-speaking countries such as Ireland, Australia and others. We should look at the evidence from those countries.

The Government have invested more in childcare overall, which is welcome. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has suggested that spending on three hours of childcare has doubled since 2009, rising from £1.7 billion to £3.5 billion in real terms. That spending and investment is welcome, but I am concerned about the extent to which that reaches the people who need it most. Responding to the Education Committee’s report in April 2019, the Government said that 72% of eligible two-year-olds were taking up the two-year-old offer, and that that proportion had risen from 58%. That is welcome, but it still means that 28% of the eligible cohort—some of the people most in need of extra support—are not getting it.

There is a disjunction between our two-year-old offer, which is designed to support people most in need of catching up, and the offer for three-year-olds and four-year-olds, which is designed to support people so that they have the best chance of entering the workplace. I understand the history of how that came about and the fact that those initiatives were introduced for different reasons, but if we were starting from scratch we would not design a system with that disjunction. We would design a system to support children and parents with the challenges of childcare. It is important that we take a long, hard look at that, and I hope that, whoever wins the race to become Chair of the Education Committee, it will look at those issues.

Again, it is timely that the Select Committee should look at the wider issue of childcare. I certainly look forward to responding to the letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. He made a good point about the lack of socialisation of children in lockdown. I know this from my own daughter, who lived at home with us throughout lockdown. After her first day of nursery, she came back and said, “Mummy, daddy, I don’t like children”. It suddenly occurred to us that she literally had not engaged with any children her own age for a year at the age of two; that is extraordinary. It took her a bit of time, but I am glad to report that she now gets on very well with her peers at school. But this is an area where extra support is needed.

One of my concerns—this is something that I have heard constantly from primary school heads and teachers—is about the speech and language capabilities of children entering primary school. I note that the National Deaf Children’s Society and Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists have recently called for more investment in the specialist early years workforce to ensure that we get the right support for those children.

As the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North mentioned, it is particularly important to identify children who have special needs and ensure that they get that early support. The education system as a whole would save enormously from identifying need and making sure that the right supports and therapies are there at the earliest stage. That proper early intervention, which many Members have spoken about over time, makes a difference.

I wholly agree with the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) about an inverted pyramid of funding in the education system. The amount that we spend goes up as children go through the education system, but the returns on that investment are actually greater the earlier the investment is made. We need to keep looking at that when we look at the funding formula, to ensure that it works properly. I do not entirely share my hon. Friend’s views on the area cost adjustment, because I come from a part of the country that tends to lose out as a result of such formula adjustments, but I recognise his point.

We need to look at the pay of early years professionals to ensure we reward their increasing levels of qualifications. We must also take a long, hard look at what we are trying to do through the tax-free childcare offer. In theory, this is a great offer. It is a huge amount of money that is potentially available to people, but they are not taking it up. They have consistently not taken it up in sufficient numbers to justify it. I sometimes worry that this is a great wheeze for the Treasury. If there is a large amount of money going into childcare but it is not spent, that does not benefit either the system, the childcare advisers or the parents for whom it is intended. The figures I have from His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which were picked up in a recent report from the Institute of Chartered Accountants, were that less than 22% of eligible families are taking up the tax-free childcare for which they are eligible. I hope that the new Minister, who is a great thinker and will do a brilliant job in this role, is able to challenge her friends at the Treasury on that, to ensure that the money does flow through into the childcare sector.

I am inclined to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that it is right that the Government should ask the question about ratios, but we have heard in this debate that there is pretty heavy evidence that the answer may not be changing ratios. It may be looking at other ways to support the sector and to make it more affordable, and at the role that the Government can play in that. I say to the Minister: ask the question but listen to the evidence. Listen to the evidence from the professionals and the people working in early years. Let us make this work for the whole country, for our economy and, most of all, for the children.

Helen Hayes Portrait Helen Hayes (Dulwich and West Norwood) (Lab)
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It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Harris. I am grateful to the Petitions Committee for securing the debate and to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for her excellent opening speech. The high number of signatures on this petition indicates the very high level of concern across the country about the Government’s proposals.

I want to pass on my sincere condolences to Zoe and Lewis Steeper on the unbearable loss of their precious little boy, Oliver, and to pay tribute to them for their courage and commitment to campaign to prevent other families from suffering as they have suffered. I hope that you know today that Oliver’s name will live long in the memory and that there are many who will work for the change you wish to see on his behalf.

We have had an excellent debate this afternoon with a high level of consensus and I thank all Members who have contributed to it. My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North set out the argument very well, but the Government’s consultation includes no plans to increase the training or safety requirements for early year settings. She spoke of the need for young children to receive individualised care and attention, which may be compromised through the proposed measures, and of the impact on staff recruitment and retention, which is pressing in the sector.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) spoke of the need to design policy for early years that delivers quality. He called for the framework to be driven not solely by quantity—although a shortage of places is a problem in many parts of the country—and to firmly place the onus on the Government to explain why relaxing the ratios will not compromise quality and safety. He cited evidence from the APPG, of which he is the chair, on the concerns of the sector and the risks to staff recruitment and retention from going down this route.

The hon. Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) spoke about the difficulty that staff will face in safely caring for an increased number of children if the ratios are relaxed. The hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds) spoke about the impact that money spent on children in the early years has on the rest of a child’s life, and the need to look at that evidence when designing childcare and early years policy. The hon. Member for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie) spoke of the need for the Government to cite evidence on safety if they go down this route, as well as the policy’s ability to deliver cost savings to parents and increase the pay for staff working in the sector—a point that I will come on to. She asked questions about the international comparisons that the Government have cited in their consultation document. Finally, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) spoke about the concerns expressed widely in the school sector about the increased lack of school readiness of primary-age children entering reception. He highlighted the disjointed nature of our childcare system, and the low take-up of available subsidised places.

The UK has the third most expensive childcare in the OECD. The cost of childcare is a major contributor to the cost of living crisis for families with children. The average cost of a 25-hours-a-week childcare place for a child under two in England is £140.68. For a three or four-year-old, the cost is £133. Earlier this year, a survey of 27,000 parents found that almost two thirds spend as much or more on childcare than on their rent or mortgage. This is a terrible strain on family budgets, and it is holding back parents, particularly mums. This year, Office for National Statistics data showed that, for the first time in decades, the number of women leaving the workforce to look after family is increasing. For women aged 25 to 34 years, that increase is more than 12%. A survey by Mumsnet just last month found that nearly a fifth of parents have given up or are considering giving up work, because that will cost them less than childcare. Childcare is at its most expensive for very young children, but the costs do not disappear when a child starts school. For parents to sustain a full working day, pre-school and after-school care are needed, and often come at significant cost.

Our childcare system does not work for families as the costs are so high, or for our economy, as it is forcing women out of the workforce. It does not work for providers, either: there was a net loss of around 4,000 childcare providers in the last financial year. The Government should urgently explore how to design a system that delivers for children, is affordable for families and sustainable for providers, and can help to underpin a strong and growing economy, yet so far the only substantive measure that has been mooted, and on which there has been a consultation, is the relaxation of childcare ratios to allow more children to be looked after by the same number of staff. The Government have consulted on changing the mandatory staff-to-child ratio for two-year-olds in early years settings from 1:4 to 1:5, and on increasing the number of children under the age of five who can be looked after by a single childminder from the current maximum of three.

The justification for the proposals is spurious at best, and at worst completely unfounded. The Government have claimed that the measures could reduce the cost of childcare for two-year-olds by 15%, or £40 a week on average, but that claim has been the subject of a formal complaint by the Early Years Alliance, and the Department for Education has had to commit to not using it again.

The Government cite the example of Scotland and other European countries, including the Netherlands and France, which have 1:5 childcare ratios. However, as we have heard, none of those is a like-for-like comparison. Scotland has higher-quality assurance standards around staff training. In the Netherlands—its relaxation of ratios was praised by the UK Government—the reforms increased the cost for parents and taxpayers, and the quality of provision fell. The Dutch Government subsequently abandoned the policy. In France, early years settings use ancillary staff for tasks such as nappy changing and food preparation, and they are not counted in the official ratios.

There is wide consensus among parents and childcare providers that relaxing ratios will not address any of the pressing challenges facing the childcare sector. There is no evidence that relaxing ratios will reduce the cost for parents. A survey by the Early Years Alliance in May found that just 2% of nurseries and pre-schools, and 2% of childminders, said that relaxing the ratios would enable them to lower fees for parents. That is little surprise, given that so many providers are in a financially precarious state and the level of closures is so high.

The consultation covers only the staffing ratios; there is no comment made on other requirements that determine how many children can be cared for in any given setting, such as the requirement for a certain amount of space per child, or the number of toilets. Even if providers want to take advantage of a relaxation of staffing ratios, many would face important practical considerations that would prevent them from doing so.

Most importantly of all, relaxing the ratios will increase the risk of a reduction in the quality and safety of provision. Parents have expressed their anxiety about the safety of settings in which staff attention would be stretched thinly across many children; as many a parent of a two-year-old has said, looking after them requires us to have eyes in the back of our head.

Parental anxiety is understandably particularly high among the parents of children with serious allergies and other medical conditions, and the parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities. The policy also has the potential to make settings less inclusive; when settings face the risk of stretching staff more thinly, they may decide that they cannot meet the needs of children who require extra care and attention because they have an allergy, a medical condition or an additional need.

I welcome the Minister to her place, and I recognise that she is very new in post. Today, she has heard ample evidence that relaxing ratios would not deliver the Government’s stated objective of reducing the cost of childcare to parents, but would risk the quality and safety of childcare in some settings. She has heard that the suggestion that this policy simply replicates the situation in Scotland and other European countries is incorrect. She has heard that a vast majority of parents and childcare providers are opposed to it, and that Members from across the House share those concerns and have expressed their opposition. I therefore hope that she will confirm that the Government are abandoning these proposals and will turn their attention instead to a serious plan to reduce the cost of childcare for parents, to developing a workforce plan for early years, and to ensuring that every child can access a high-quality early years place, so that they can build a strong foundation for their formal education.

We owe it to Zoe it and Lewis to take their concerns about safety seriously after the unbearable pain that they have suffered. We owe it to every child and family in the country to deliver a childcare system that works for them. In doing so, we will build a firm foundation for a thriving and fair economy.

Claire Coutinho Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education (Claire Coutinho)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Harris. I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for opening this important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. Before I respond, I extend my gratitude to Zoe and Lewis for starting the petition. I cannot imagine what you have been through; the death of a child is one of the worst tragedies any of us could endure. I send you my deepest sympathies.

I also put on record my gratitude to all the staff working in settings across the country. Just last week, I was with my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson) at Imagination Childcare, and we saw the brilliant work that staff do there to give children the best start in life. Their skills and experience are vital. I know the last few years have been challenging, and I look forward to working with all such staff in the months ahead, as we look at this important area.

The Members who spoke in this debate are some of the most experienced on this subject in Parliament, and I have been having conversations with some of them for, quite literally, years. I look forward to seeing what we can do together, and I thank everyone for their important contributions. We can be proud of the standard of childcare in this country. At the end of June 2022, Ofsted reported that 96% of our early years childcare providers had been judged good or outstanding at their last inspection. That is down to the hard work of practitioners. I thank them again; that is something that we can be very proud of.

I will start by setting out some of the work that we are doing today. We have consulted on a number of changes that will provide the sector with more flexibility and autonomy. We have spoken a lot about changing the ratios for two-year-olds so that it is in line with the ratio in Scotland—I will come on to that. We are also looking at flexibilities for childminders when it comes to siblings and related children, and strengthening the requirements on supervision while eating, which is particularly relevant in the light of the issues discussed today. The consultation closed in September; we are looking at all the responses, and will publish a response in due course. I will come on to some of the evidence that people have asked about.

At the heart of this debate sit safety and quality; I assure everyone that they will be integral to the proposals we put forward. We are already taking steps in this area. We have been working with the NHS, the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health and Social Care on increasing awareness of choking prevention in early years. We have also published dedicated food safety guidance for practitioners in our help for early years providers, through our online support platform. We have consulted on strengthening the supervision while eating requirements in the early years framework. Practitioners will need not just sight or hearing of children while they are eating, but sight and hearing.

We are also increasing the number of early years providers who have paediatric first-aid training. All level 2 and 3 trained staff, since June 2016, have had to have valid paediatric first-aid training to be counted in the ratios. Ofsted, in carrying out its inspections, is reporting on those safety requirements as well.

The subject of the workforce was raised powerfully by Members from across the House, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), chair of the APPG for early years and childcare, and my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker). From what I have seen, recruitment and retention is undoubtedly an issue, and supporting the workforce is a priority for me and the Department. We are spending an extra £180 million on qualifications and training. I spoke to the amazing Becky and Joe from Imagination Childcare just last week, and for a practitioner, feeling valued, and training and work progression, are really important. This is not just about funding; it is also about staff feeling valued for the work that they do. We gave 2,700 early years professionals bespoke training in response to challenging behaviour arising from the pandemic. Over the next two years, we aim to give 10,000 more staff the latest training in early communication in language and maths, which has been mentioned today.

I also wanted to address the point about SEN, which I am really passionate about; I am a former Minister for disabled people, as is my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon. We are funding the ability of 5,000 early years practitioners to gain an accredited special educational needs co-ordinator qualification, but also making sure that providers have a sense of the interventions they can make at an early stage. I am passionate about NELI, the Nuffield Early Language Intervention, which is doing great work on communications development at an early stage; we have rolled that out to two thirds of primary schools, and it is having a great effect. We will also provide support and guidance through our experts and mentors programmes, as well as our stronger practice hubs. The point about giving providers flexibility, so that they feel their expert judgment is valued, is interesting. I have followed up on the question of how we make sure that these conversations with Ofsted are more of a dialogue, so that people feel there is an ongoing conversation on improving practice, rather than us having a box-ticking exercise.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), and for Stroud (Siobhan Baillie), are rightly questing for evidence. It is right that the Government should look at the issue of childcare ratios. Ratios were set out in the 1980s, and we are looking at how they work in practice. We are taking evidence. As hon. Members are aware, we have held a consultation, but we have also looked at the impact, and we will set out that evidence alongside the results of our consultation. Safety has to be paramount in what we try to do, but it is also important that we look at the affordability of childcare, and at giving providers flexibility, and making sure that staff feel that their judgment is trusted. In that context, it was right to carry out the consultation, and, of course, we will come forward with the results of that consultation, and the providers’ impact assessments, which we did alongside it.

In summary, I thank the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North for securing this debate. This is a really important and emotive issue that matters to so many families across the country. I want us to get this right, and to look at the issue carefully. I thank all hon. Members who spoke for their contributions.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell
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I thank the Minister for that response. It did not necessarily answer the question, or give a firm response to the petitioners, but I am heartened to hear that there is a listening tone on this issue, because it is so important that it is looked at in the round.

I thank everyone who contributed to the debate; I know it means a huge amount to those who signed the petition, and to Zoe and Lewis, that people have taken part. It is notable that there has been a huge amount of challenge and constructive feedback, in particular from Members on the Government Benches. An important election is due to take place for the chairship of the Select Committee on Education; I want to put on record that whoever is elected—I think only one Member who is in the running is not present—the Petitions Committee is very keen to work with the Committee when petitioners come to us with complex petitions that need thorough investigation and would benefit from the focus of a Select Committee inquiry. We are always very keen to work across Parliament, using all the resources we have, to represent our constituents and, in this case, the petitioners, who want a constructive, listening debate in Parliament on these important issues.

It is good that the Government have acknowledged that there is clearly an issue, but I have great doubts about the claim that they have an “ambitious” plan for childcare. That was the word that the Prime Minister used at the Dispatch Box last Wednesday, but if what the Minister has just outlined is the Prime Minister’s idea of an ambitious plan, it does not feel very ambitious —no offence to the Minister. It feels like tweaking the edges—a sticking-plaster approach to the gaping wound in our early years sector, which desperately needs wholesale reform and review. The data shows a decline in women staying in the workforce for the first time in decades, so we are going in the wrong direction. The clock is ticking backwards, particularly for women; there is a 12.6% increase in the number of 25 to 34-year-olds falling out of the workforce. In the words of Pregnant Then Screwed,

“That isn’t just a glass ceiling, that’s a push off the career cliff for mothers.”

That is what the childcare system is leading to for women.

According to the Women’s Budget Group, 1.7 million women are prevented from working the hours that they would like by the cost or unavailability of childcare. It estimates that that costs £30 billion to our economy every year. That would go some way to filling the big black hole; we will hear announcements on Thursday about how it will be filled. In fact, £30 billion is the size of the black hole left by the previous Prime Minister, so fixing the childcare system would go some way towards improving our public finances. It would be far from being money wasted; it would be money well spent if we want a thriving economy.

I do not want to put words in their mouth, but the petition was started by Zoe and Lewis because they are horrified by the proposal put forward by the Government. They are determined to make sure that the Government listen to the evidence and look at this issue properly, rather than giving the knee-jerk response of saying, “We’re doing something to bring down the cost of childcare.” We have seen evidence that the proposal will not deliver the cost savings to parents that have been proposed, and have not seen any evidence that it will not increase risks to children. Fundamentally, that is the message that Zoe, Lewis, all the petitioners, and all the childcare providers that do not welcome the proposal want the Government to hear.

I was asked, “What happens now?” This is the moment when the petitioners have been heard and the Minister has responded. We do not have the answer yet. I guarantee the Minister that every single one of those 109,488 petitioners, Zoe and Lewis, all the childcare providers and, quite frankly, every parent in this country will be watching, waiting and looking very closely at the proposals that will be put forward. They will be looking for the evidence base for anything that the Government seek to do, because nobody in this country would benefit from a race to the bottom for our children, our childcare and our early years system. I really hope we get better proposals from the Government as a result of the consultation, and as a result of today’s petition.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 615623, relating to staff-child ratios in early years childcare.

Sitting adjourned.