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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

0800 7318496