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

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

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