The outcry against the government’s plans to allow nurseries and childminders to relax staff-to-child ratios is scaremongering, driven somewhat by showboating rather than evidence. The government is proposing that nurseries should be able to relax staff-to-child ratios if they employ higher-quality staff. Ratios will be relaxed for childminders too: but this should also be dependent on these professionals having higher qualifications.
From all the outrage anyone would think Elizabeth Truss was forcing providers to cut staff ratios. But all she is proposing is that they have the flexibility to do so. If they really believe laxer ratios will undermine children’s safety and outcomes, they need not sign a petition; rather, just keep their ratios the same. And if parents do not like relaxed ratios, their demand will switch to providers with stricter ratios; the market gives parents choice.
Crucially though, the available evidence does not suggest there is a perfect staff-to-child ratio for nurseries or childminders. Compared to similar European countries, we currently have the strictest ratios around – one-to-four for 2 year olds, compared to one-to-six in Ireland, one-to-eight in France and no restrictions in Denmark, Germany or Sweden.
As the reputable EPPE study has found, high-quality staff is related to improved child outcomes. In different European countries with laxer ratios, the qualifications and pay of staff is generally higher. As we illustrated in our 2012 report A better beginning, the strict ratios UK nurseries have – and their localised and volatile customer base - means they face tight profit margins, and investment in staff is therefore low.
Considering there is no additional funding available from government, the best available evidence suggests that allowing providers to use their tight budgets to prioritise quality over quantity of staff is eminently sensible. These changes are likely to marginally increase the quality of childcare in this country, not reduce it.
This policy, however, is very unlikely to improve the affordability of childcare, as the Government has sought to claim. Any savings generated are likely to be completely deployed on attracting and recruiting better paid staff to meet the qualification requirements, and that’s no bad thing. Even if there are some savings to be had, there is no guarantee they will be passed on to parents in the form of lower costs, especially considering the tight margins most nurseries face.
So while the policy is sensible and the opposition hysterical, these proposals won’t solve the problem of high costs in the UK. When there is no public money, the best way to help parents is by allowing them to smooth those costs over a longer period of time. This can be achieved if government pays the fees and recoups the money from working parents over a long period of time on an income-contingent basis. As our analysis has shown, this would be costless to government – since the money is eventually repaid - and popular with parents. As such, it would strengthen affordability and raise demand, increasing revenue into the sector, which could be used for further investment in quality.
For those of us who are passionate about the benefits of childcare, we need to find innovative and sensible ways of improving quality when public money is short. There are two credible ideas at the moment: enabling providers to relax ratios, and offering childcare loans.
Ryan Shorthouse is a Researcher at the Social Market Foundation