Early Years Childcare: Staff-Child Ratios Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Early Years Childcare: Staff-Child Ratios

Justin Tomlinson Excerpts
Monday 14th November 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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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.