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Relaxing nursery ratios is no answer to the cost-of-living crisis

The government's proposal will do little, if anything, to reduce the cost of early years places for parents.

By Neil Leitch

On the surface, it seems like a simple and obvious solution to an increasingly urgent problem. The cost of childcare and early education services in this country are among the highest in the world. Staff wages make up the majority of costs for early years providers. The number of staff at a setting is determined by staff-child ratios – that is, the legal limits on the number of children per adult.

Therefore, if you relax these ratios, costs for early years settings go down and so too, in turn, do prices for parents.

At least, that’s what the government has claimed. By “‘cutting red tape”’ in the early years sector, it says, it will cut costs for parents and ease the cost-of-living crisis.

In fact, the government has proudly declared that plans to increase the number of two-year-olds per adult in nurseries and pre-schools in England from four to five could cut costs by 15 per cent, an average saving for parents of £40 a week.

In reality, however, relaxing ratios will do little, if anything, to reduce the cost of early years places.

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The 15 per cent calculation is based on, at best, an inaccurate understanding of the sector and how early years businesses operate, and at worst, an attempt to deliberately mislead parents about the impact that this change is likely to have on costs.

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It assumes that all nurseries and pre-schools not only currently work to a 1:4 ratio for two-year-olds at all times, but that they will all move to 1:5 ratios permanently and the entirety of any savings will be passed on to parents.

And yet, our a recent Early Years Alliance survey of over 9,000 early years providers revealed that only 51 per cent of nurseries and pre-schools delivering places to two-year-olds work to maximum ratios all the time, and that only 5 per cent would always operate at looser ratios if the government’s plans were approved.

In fact, just 2 per cent of settings believe that the changes will lead to lower costs for parents at their setting.

If that wasn’t bad enough, these proposals come at a time when the sector is grappling with the worst recruitment crisis it has ever experienced, with 40 per cent of the workforce actively considering leaving the sector.

And honestly, who would want to stay in a sector where an already overworked and undervalued workforce is expected to take on a greater workload for little to no extra pay?

And then, of course, there is the impact of relaxing ratios on young children themselves. It is ironic that on the same day that the Prime Minister was reported to have told ministers to look at relaxing ratios, Ofsted revealed that its main focus over the next five years will be the early years because of its concerns over the ongoing impact of the pandemic on the learning and development of young children.

Surely the government should be supporting the sector to provide more individual care and attention to children, not less?

Yes, childcare and early education costs are high in this country, but let’s be clear: that is a direct result of years of sustained government underfunding, not ratio requirements. Last year, the Early Years Alliance uncovered private government policy documents following a Freedom of Information investigation, which proved that not only has the government been knowingly underfunding the early years sector for years, but that it did so knowing that this would result in higher costs for the parents of young children.

The government knows full well what the problem is, but rather than commit to investing what is needed to ensure the provision of affordable, sustainable, quality care and education in this country, it has instead opted to use the sector as a scapegoat by launching a policy that allows ministers to say they have taken action to address the cost-of-living crisis, and then blame providers when the savings that it has promised to parents inevitably do not appear.

This consultation is a waste of time, and an insult to providers, parents and children. There are many things the government could do to address the growing early years crisis in this country. Relaxing ratios is not one of them.

Read more: Seventy per cent of British voters say the cost of childcare keeps mothers at home