Early Years Childcare: Staff-Child Ratios Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Early Years Childcare: Staff-Child Ratios

Helen Hayes Excerpts
Monday 14th November 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.