‘It’s Ludicrous To Suggest Relaxing Adult-To-Child Ratios In Nurseries Will Solve The Cost Of Living Crisis’

The government thinks relaxing ratios in nurseries will help parents, but experts say this shows how little they understand the UK’s struggling childcare sector

childcare sector

by Maria Lally |

The UK currently has the second most expensive childcare in the world, which won’t be news to the hundreds of you who email in each week telling us how you’re either paying to work or being forced out of jobs due to staggeringly high nursery costs. Throw one of the worst cost of living crisis of our times into the mix and you can (sort of) see why Boris Johnson has suggested relaxing staff-to-child ratios in nurseries, to help cut childcare costs for struggling parents.

This week it was reported that the prime minister called on his cabinet to think of ways of reducing the cost of living, after Rishi Sunak’s spring statement was criticised over its lack of help for families. The current ratios state there must be one adult for three children under one, one adult for four children aged between 1 and 2, and one adult for four children between 2 and 3-year-olds. For children aged between three and four, one qualified member of staff can look after 13 children each, and unqualified staff can look after eight.

Joeli Brearley, from the charity Pregnant Then Screwed, however, isn’t convinced: ‘It’s a ridiculous idea that won’t solve the problems of the UK’s childcare sector, which as well as cost, is also one of recruitment and retainment. The job as it stands is unbelievably stressful and the pay is appalling. By increasing ratios, you’re making the job more stressful without increasing salaries.

‘We also know that a large proportion of nurseries are running at a loss, because the government underfunds the free hours scheme. We speak to nursery owners who aren’t paying themselves a salary, or are paying themselves a pittance, to stay afloat. Forty percent of nurseries aren’t at full ratio either, so for many these new proposals won’t make much difference. The cost of living crisis is happening right now, bills are rising right now. Any savings from reduced ratios will be tiny, and rather than being passed onto parents will probably be used by nurseries trying to stay afloat. There will be no huge reduction in your nursery bills after this, believe me.

‘The trouble is this government doesn't understand the sector they’re trying to fix. They've said they're not going to spend any money on childcare, unlike other countries who view subsided childcare as essential infrastructure. We see from Scandinavian countries that having a properly subsidised system has enormous benefits for the economy. Canada has just committed $30billion to make childcare affordable and costing no more than $10 a day. But they’re not doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, they’re doing it because they’ve crunched the numbers and they know it makes sense economically. Data shows there are real benefits to the economy, as well as child poverty and the gender pay gap, of state-subsidised or free universal preschool childcare. Affordable childcare is a sure fire way to boost the economy, as well as close the child attainment gap and empower women. Other countries get this. The UK doesn’t.’

Of the proposed new plans, Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association says: ‘The prime minister suggesting that the best way to help families with childcare costs is to tinker with ratios is short-sighted and will not achieve the desired outcome. It shows a lack of understanding of how the early years sector works in this country. We risk putting additional pressure on an overworked workforce while undermining efforts to give children the best start in life.

'We want to see a Government committed to levelling-up opportunities for all children by investing in their early years where we know it makes the biggest impact for their life chances. Instead we seem to be talking about a race to the bottom that won’t help children or families but will worsen the workforce crisis we have in early years.'

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said, 'It is absolutely ludicrous to suggest that the relaxation of ratios is any kind of solution to the current cost of living crisis. Such a change would be a catastrophic and retrograde step for the early years sector, and it is all the more galling that this suggestion from the Prime Minister came on the very same day that Ofsted has warned of the damaging impact the pandemic has had on young children's learning and development. Now more than ever, many children attending early years settings need far greater individual care and attention. Relaxing ratios will achieve the exact opposite. What’s more, such a policy would do little, if anything, to lower costs for parents.

‘These changes will barely make a difference to childcare fees - mothers will still have to quit their jobs because they can’t afford to work. And at the same time we'll be sacrificing the quality and possibly safety of childcare,’ says Joeli. ‘This is a big risk to our children’s future for a miniscule saving.’

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