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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.

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

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