Early Years Childcare: Staff-Child Ratios Debate

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Department: Scotland Office

Early Years Childcare: Staff-Child Ratios

Tulip Siddiq Excerpts
Monday 14th November 2022

(1 year, 7 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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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?