Ryan Shorthouse

Nonsense over childcare ratios

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.

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