The case for looser childcare ratios rests on confusion

The government claims to want to reduce costs and increase quality. It can't have it both ways.

This morning’s announcement on childcare ratios should be just the hors d'oeuvre before the government sets out its plans to increase childcare support for parents. According to the latest rumours, it now looks likely that the majority of any new money will be spent on tax relief for higher income households, making this a potentially important political moment. For now, though, today’s announcement merits some serious attention. Nursery workers are to be allowed to look after six two-year-olds at a time, up from four today, while childminders will be able to look after four young children, up from three today. Any provider wanting to use these new ratios will have to meet new quality standards, though the government is yet to set out what these will be.

These are fairly big changes and the government’s case for them rests on a number of confusions. First, the argument for relaxing ratios has gradually shifted from an emphasis on reducing costs to one of increasing quality. In some ways, this is an admirable shift to a more defensible position. Now, though, the government wants it both ways. On the one hand, briefings have claimed that ratio changes will free up money for investment in staff, raising pay and qualifications. On the other, looser ratios are intended to reduce childcare costs. This double counting might be ok if new ratios would free up large sums of money in a competitive and smoothly-functioning childcare market. But with many childcare providers already struggling to stay afloat, and with the market for childcare all but broken, this seems unlikely. The government needs to clarify what it wants looser ratios to achieve.

Second, there is the appealing idea that childcare ratios are tighter in the UK than in other countries and that this ‘over regulation’ can explain our sky-high childcare costs. Yet these variations in ratios rarely reflect the reality on the ground. In France, for example, the government cites a ratio of eight one-year -olds per member of staff. Yet academics argue that a ratio of 4:1 is more common. And nor is this a simple case of disputed data. While some aspects of the childcare debate do lack good evidence, there is a strong consensus among practitioners about the appropriate ratios for different ages of children. While the Department for Education may point to varying ratios rules, the UK does not appear to be an outlier in practice. It’s doubtful that ratios are the main explanation for high costs.

Third, there is the idea of a simple trade-off between staff quality and ratios. This allows the government to say it wants "to shift the debate away from quantity towards quality". Of course training matters greatly, but ratios are an important dimension of quality in their own right. This is partly because very young children learn by interacting with adults and need close attention; no amount of training allows a nursery assistant to give one-to-one time to more than one baby at once. But it’s also because the ratios debate ignores the reality of a room full of two year olds. In practice, a 1:4 ratio doesn’t mean one nursery assistant sitting calmly with four children. It means one nursery assistant dealing with a two year old having a meltdown while the other watches over the remaining seven. As one childcare provider put it at a recent Resolution Foundation event, "I don’t have enough laps and hips to calm down four two year olds as it is – I don’t know how I’d cope with six".

These confusions help to explain why today’s proposals have received short shrift from most parent groups and providers. In practice, this opposition might well be their saving grace – it wouldn’t be surprising if very few providers take up the offer of looser ratios. And even this will need to await a government consultation on what exactly the new quality requirements will mean. If international experience is anything to go by, let’s hope this is the case. The Netherlands gives us a good example of what happens when you relax childcare ratios: when this choice was made there, in the mid-2000s, the quality of childcare fell. It’s an important warning of the consequences of not paying due attention to the evidence.

James Plunkett is director of policy and development at the Resolution Foundation 

David Cameron is pictured during a visit to a London Early Years Foundation nursery in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

James Plunkett is director of policy and development at the Resolution Foundation

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.