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

Getty Images.
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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.