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Parliamentary Briefing – Why the relaxation of ratios in our early years sector would be a failed policy

Pregnant Then Screwed and Early Years Alliance Parliamentary Briefing:

Why the relaxation of ratios in our early years sector would be a failed policy, and key lessons for “building back better” for children and mothers in the UK

This briefing seeks to inform and equip MPs and peers with evidence-based, tangible reasoning and data as to why plans currently under consideration to relax ratios within early years settings in England would not have the desired outcome of reducing costs for parents, whilst simultaneously decreasing quality and increasing health and safety issues.

1. Background

Pregnant Then Screwed and the Early Years Alliance have long campaigned for greater investment into the early years to prevent the sector from collapsing, to improve working conditions for staff, and to ensure childcare and early education is affordable for all families.

The early years system in England is broken.

In March 2022, Pregnant Then Screwed published the results of a survey of over 27,000 parents of under-fives which found that 62% say that childcare now costs the same as their rent or mortgage, rising to 73% for single parents, and 73% for parents who work full-time. One in four (25%) parents say they have had to skip meals or forgo heating and fuel to pay for childcare, while 13% of single parents say they have had to use a food bank due to increased childcare costs. 80% of parents expect their childcare bill to rise further in the next six months, and 99% of parents say that the cost of childcare is making the cost-of-living crisis even more challenging.

At the same time, data from an Early Years Alliance survey of around 2,000 early years providers also carried out in March 2022 found that for 86% of settings, funding for the three- and four-year-old early entitlement scheme does not cover the cost of delivering places. Around a third (30%) of the providers surveyed said that they were currently operating at a loss, while 34% said that they expected to be operating at a loss in 12 months’ time. 48% of the respondents said that they were either considering leaving or had left the sector (42% were actively considering leaving the early years sector, 5% were in the process of leaving and 1% had already left).

While it is positive that the government has recognised that it needs to take action to tackle rising childcare costs, the plan to potentially relax ratios is not an effective solution to this problem – nor does it address the wider structural problems facing our early years sector, including growing numbers of provider closures, a growing lack of available and accessible places in some areas of the country, and a worsening early years workforce recruitment and retention crisis.

2. International ratios comparisons: a flawed approach

The children and families minister Will Quince has confirmed that he will be traveling to France, Sweden, the Netherlands and Scotland to see how providers operate there and what aspects of their approach might be adopted in England, including ratios.

While it is true to say that we have stricter official ratios in England than in some other European countries, these headline figures alone do not tell the full story. For example:

  • French early years settings use ancillary staff for tasks such as nappy changing and food preparation who are not counted in official ratios.
  • In the Netherlands, early years settings went on strike at the end of 2021 to protest against rising workload pressures, with the FNV trade union federation proposing reducing the number of children per class/group and hiring additional staff as potential solutions.
  • A 2015 OECD Norway Early Childhood Education and Care Policy Review said of the Norwegian early years system that while the “so-called pedagogue norm requires 1 kindergarten teacher per 7-9 children under the age of 3 … usually untrained staff is present in addition to the

kindergarten teacher.” In fact, the Norwegian Kindergarten Act states that a maximum of three children should be cared for per adult for children under the age of 3 years old. Despite this, the OECD policy review still says of Norway: “Not all its standards are adequate or precise enough … especially those regarding staff-child ratios and minimum qualification levels for staff involved in the direct pedagogical work with children.”

For many countries, it is impossible to compare ratios as they may have mixed age groups or the ratios can fluctuate from region to region.

Headline ratio figures also do not reflect varying approaches to early years provision in different countries: in England, we promote a child-led, play-based approach to early years provision, and promote appropriate risk-taking. This requires stricter ratios than countries that focus on a more adult-led, desk/table-based approach to provision.

They also do not tell us what demographic of children attend settings in different countries, including the number of children with SEND who require more individual support and care.

3. Why relaxing ratios is not the solution

Pregnant Then Screwed and the Early Years Alliance strongly recommend that ministers do not support any relaxation of early years ratios in England. The reasons are as follows:

a. It will not reduce the cost of childcare for parents

Government-commissioned research has already shown that regulations are not the cause of high childcare costs in this country and that relaxing ratios will not lead to a reduction in fees. A report by Eva Lloyd and Professor Helen Penn of the Cass School of Education and Communities at the University of East London, commissioned in 2013 when ratio relaxation was last under consideration, states: “The low fees in other countries are not because there are particular features of childcare in the UK such as over-generous ratios or other regulatory issues which have resulted in higher fees.”

It adds that: “Quality childcare is expensive, but there is little evidence that high fees are a function of regulatory requirements. However, the converse is true – that very lax regulatory regimes lead to poor quality provision.”

According to a Government report in 2021, a fifth (20%) of providers had spare capacity for full-day places already, with 25% saying they had availability for their morning sessions, and 33% saying they had availability for their afternoon sessions. Moreover, 11% reported a staff:child ratio of less than 1:3 for under-twos, 22% reported a ratio of less than 1:4 for two-year-olds and 39% reported a ratio less than 1:8 for three- and four-year-olds. Among school-based providers, 33% of settings reported staff:child ratios of less than 1:8 for three and four-year-olds. This means that some early years providers could take on more children right now, today, without any change in the rules but choose not to do so.

In addition, a survey of early years providers carried out by the Early Years Alliance from 28 April – 3 May 2022 found that if ratios were relaxed, just 2% of nurseries and pre-schools and 2% childminders say that this would result in lower fees for parents at their settings.

This is largely because only a small minority (14% of nurseries and preschools and 10% of childminders) would relax ratios more than occasionally/in emergencies if they were relaxed by government.

Of the minority of settings that would, and believe that this would deliver any financial benefits, only 10% of nurseries and pre-schools and 5% of childminders would reduce childcare fees as a result (compared to 43% of nurseries and preschools and 63% of childminders who would invest in additional equipment and resources for their settings and 40% of nurseries and preschools and 47% of childminders who would increase wages).

As put by one childminder: “I would not reduce my hourly fees for parents in my setting, as I would be increasing the workload for myself, and I would rather work with less children and earn the same amount. This will not reduce parents’ childcare costs and I am at a loss as to why the government could even think this would be the case.”

b. It will reduce the quality of childcare and early education at a time when children need greater individual care and support, not less

Children and families minister Will Quince has stated that he will not implement any measure that will compromise quality in the sector, but any relaxation of ratios would do just that.

A 2018 report on structural quality in early years provision by the Education Policy Institute states: “The evidence on child to staff ratios is fairly conclusive: having fewer children per staff leads to better children’s outcomes as it provides the opportunity for more individualised attention and leads to better teacher and child behaviour.”

Similarly, a 2011 OECD report states: “The child-to-staff ratio is an important indicator of the resources invested in education and childcare, and also the quality of these services. A low child-to staff ratio impacts staff working conditions, alongside other factors such as reasonable hours or workload and salary levels. These affect job satisfaction and staff retention, and through this, contribute to the quality of early childhood education and care services.”

This is all the more concerning given the impact that the pandemic has had on our youngest children. Ofsted has recently repeatedly warned of the serious impact that Covid-19 measures have had on the early learning and development of under-fives, and has called for particular focus to be put to their education recovery. In a recent Radio 4 Today programme interview, Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman, said: “Almost all children have had their lives disrupted and among the youngest children, those who are around two have lived all their lives in a pandemic and they’ve seen fewer adults, they’ve seen fewer people without masks on [so] their speech and language is in many cases well behind where it would normally be at this stage, their communication skills more generally and their social skills … Early years providers everywhere are telling us that children have got a lot further to go to get to being ready for school.”

In addition, moves to potentially relax ratios would go against the aims of the SEND Green Paper, which aims to build “a system that consistently delivers for children and young people with SEND”, including ensuring “that every child and young person has their needs identified quickly”. Given the key role that early years providers play in identifying additional needs, any changes that reduce the level of individual care and support that setting are able to offer to children with SEND would undoubtedly contradict the aims of this policy paper.

We would also be particularly concerned by any proposal to increase ratios for children under the age of two as this would put the safety and wellbeing of babies and infants at significant risk. As one early years professional told us: ‘It is impossible to care for more than three babies. You can have one on each hip and one on your lap if you have three, but anything more than this and none of them are being properly cared for.’’Norway, the Netherlands, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland all have a ratio

of 1:3 for this age range. Iceland has a ratio of 1:2 for this age range.

Stricter ratios have also been recognised as beneficial to children from more disadvantaged backgrounds. The Sutton Trust’s 2014 report, Sound Foundation, argued that to help ensure the success of the funded two-year-old offer, the government should “retain an overall ratio of 1:4 for group care settings and 1:3 for childminders [as] research shows that the adult-child ratio is one of the strongest influences on quality for this age group, particularly in relation to care routines and support for children’s individual needs. This is particularly important for funded two year olds, given that many will be developmentally younger than their chronological age in terms of their social, behavioural and/ or language development.”

3. Recruitment and retention crisis

The early years sector is currently facing a recruitment and retention crisis, with a growing number of settings struggling to offer their normal sessions and opening days/hours as a results of staffing shortages. Low pay is a key factor in this: according to a 2020 Social Mobility report, the average wage in the sector is £7.42 per hour compared to an average pay across the female workforce of £11.37. In 2019, EPI research found that almost half (44 per cent) of childcare workers had to claim state benefits and tax credits, while a report by Nursery World found that one in ten early years workers were officially living in relative poverty.

A sector survey carried out by the Early Years Alliance in December 2021 of 1,400 providers found that:

  • 84% of providers are finding it difficult to recruit staff
  • 35% of respondents are actively considering leaving the sector
  • 16% believe that staffing shortages are likely to force their setting to close

    permanently within a year.

    Any relaxation of ratios will increase the pressure on an already overworked workforce, and so is likely to exacerbate these worrying trends even further.

    In a recent Observer article, Professor Eva Lloyd, commissioned by the Department for Education to carry out research into international early years models back in 2013, warned: “Current staff recruitment problems already threatening quality are likely to be exacerbated by ratio relaxations. More staff may leave – having to work even harder for abominable rates of pay.”

    The Alliance April/May 2022 survey of early years providers found that 70% of early years professionals would be somewhat or very likely to leave their setting if ratios were relaxed there.

4. Parents don’t want it

A poll conducted by Pregnant Then Screwed of 14,000 parents found that 85% do not want ratios to be relaxed, even if it means lower costs for them. Comments included:

“My child has severe allergies and [at] more than the current ratios I couldn’t cope with the anxiety of something being missed”

“This absolutely terrifies me. My child has severe allergies and I’ve been so upset thinking about them being busier … what happens if they make a mistake with his food … what happens if they have less time to watch over him as he eats and gets sick (which happens a lot) … worried sick”

“I was devastated with the news of the idea to reduce regulations. Not only are they going to disadvantage the next generation but put more workload onto nursery staff while making it unsafe for everyone. It just sends the message home that they don’t want women in the workforce because what nursery staff who are mainly women are going to stay and put up with it. It’s going to end up like the maternity crisis. With 3 children under 5, I foresee this is going to have massive impacts on me, my children and my career.”

Similarly, a poll conducted by YouGov on 27 April 2022 found that only 18% of adults support the relaxing of ratios in early years settings.

4. Why the Government needs to invest more in our early years sector

a. It is good for the economy

We know that childcare is the biggest enabler of maternal employment. Price Waterhouse Cooper estimates a boost to the UK economy of £48 billion if we can increase the number of women in work in the UK across all regions.

In 2019, a report conducted by PwC found that, in Australia, for every dollar spent on pre-school care and education, two dollars will be returned to the economy. A 2013 paper by the Foundation for Child Development that explored a variety of studies on childcare concluded that the return-on-investment ranges from 3:1 to 5:1. Childcare and early education is an investment, not a cost.

A study carried out using the province of Quebec as a test case, which has heavily subsidised childcare, found that for every $1 invested, the wider economy received $1.50 to $2.80 in return. This was the trigger for a $30 billion investment from the Canadian Federal Government to create a system of affordable and high-quality childcare. The Canadian government described it as a hat trick of jobs and growth.

Analysis estimates that if women had access to adequate childcare services, and were able to work the hours they wanted, they would increase their earnings by between £7.6bn and £10.9bn per annum – generating up to £28.2bn in economic output per annum.

The Prime Minister himself has stated that “investment in kids’ early years is absolutely crucial” and that it “repays society and families massively”.

Investment in childcare by the UK Government is low compared to other countries. As a proportion of GDP we have the second lowest investment in the OECD after Israel, and we have the highest cost of childcare in the developed world.

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b. It is good for children

Data compiled by the Rauch Foundation found that 85% of the brain develops by the time a child is five years old, meaning that quality care and early education is absolutely critical to long-term learning and development.

The latest results (published in November 2021) from the longitudinal Study of Early Education and Development (SEED), which is following 5,000 children up to the age of seven, reveal that attending high-quality nursery classes, nursery schools or playgroups between ages two and four is associated with better results in Key Stage 1 maths, science and combined English and maths during school Year 2 (age seven).

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is an international survey which aims to evaluate education systems by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-old students. PISA 2015 findings show that an investment in early education pays dividends in students’ performance at age 15.

Quality childcare and early education offers us a magnificent opportunity to give each child a more equal start in life, no matter what their background.

c. It is good for parents and carers

Research by Pregnant Then Screwed and other charities found that 84% of mothers state that the cost of childcare has had a negative impact on their career. Moreover, 43% of mothers say the cost of childcare has made them consider leaving their job. 1.7m women are unable to work as long as they want to, according to the Women’s Budget Group, because they can’t afford astronomical childcare costs.

However, while the provider survey carried out by the Early Years Alliance in April / May 2022 demonstrated that relaxing ratios will not provide the kinds of savings that early years providers need to drive down childcare costs for parents (see section 3a of this briefing), in contrast, in the Alliance’s March 2022 survey of early years providers, of the two-thirds of respondents who said they would be increasing their fees this year, 43% said they would not be increasing fees as much if funding for the early entitlement offers covered their costs, while 35% said that they would not be increasing fees at all.

For this reason, we argue that increasing investment into these schemes, and not relaxing ratios, should be the government’s priority if it wants to drive down costs for parents.

It should also be noted that since its launch in 2017, the government has spent around £2.4bn less on the tax-free childcare scheme than it originally budgeted. This is money that the government was already prepared to spend to support parents to access childcare and early education. If this money was redirected into the early years sector via better funding for early entitlement offers, this could have a transformative impact on the affordability of care and education in this country.

To discuss this in more detail please contact [email protected] or [email protected]

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