Education & Family

Nursery ratio plans criticised by government adviser

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Ministers said they wanted childcare to be of higher quality

One of the government's key advisers on childcare has issued a strongly worded attack on its plans to increase the number of children nursery staff can look after in England.

Prof Cathy Nutbrown, who reviewed childcare and qualifications for the government, said its plans "make no sense at all".

She said changing ratios would "dilute" the effects of raising staff quality.

The government said standards and safety were linked to staff quality.

And it has stressed that only those nursery settings that employ more highly qualified staff would be allowed to increase the number of children cared for by each of its workers.

'Watering down'

In a strongly worded response to the government's plans, More Great Childcare, Prof Nutbrown said the current proposals would "shake the foundations" of quality nursery provisions.

"Watering down ratios regardless of the level of qualifications held by staff is likely to lead to worse, not 'great', childcare and will undermine intentions to provide quality early learning experiences," she said.

Prof Nutbrown said any of the positive effects that might have come about by enhancing qualifications would be "cancelled out" because children will simply have too few early years professionals working with them.

She added: "So, do I think changing the ratios will make a difference if people are better qualified?

"The difference will be too few adults with too many little children; too few moments in the day for a toddler to have uninterrupted time with their key person, and too few early years practitioners to talk and work with parents."

"Here is the nub, there is nothing relaxing about the proposal to 'relax' ratios. It will lead to stress - for children, for parents and for early years practitioners, whatever their title or qualification."

It was impossible to provide "good foundations for life and learning for the youngest children on the cheap", she added.

'More flexibility'

Prof Nutbrown has been at the heart of shaping government policy on childcare. The Sheffield University professor has been advising the government on early years education since 2010 and has been held up by the Department for Education as a leading expert in the field.

She led the government's review of early education and childcare qualifications and contributed to the Tickell review of the Early Years Foundation Stage, which looked at the previous government's guidance on how education should be organised for children up to the age of five.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "Prof Nutbrown's review provided a valuable contribution to the development of our proposals for early education and childcare.

"We have taken forward several of her important recommendations, but we recognise that reforms and improvement need to go much further if we are to give parents a proper choice of high quality childcare and early education.

"All the evidence shows that quality and safety are linked to high quality staff. Our reforms mean that only high quality providers will be able to have this additional flexibility.

"Our preliminary work suggests providers will be able to attract quality staff - using the new ratios could enable nurseries to pay staff up to £3,000 more per year."

But shadow children's minister Sharon Hodgson said: "The government's own expert adviser has echoed the concerns of parents and nursery staff that the quality of care for babies and toddlers is being undermined by this government - David Cameron and Michael Gove need to listen to Professor Nutbrown."

Prof Nutbrown's comments come as the National Children's Bureau (NCB) charity releases the findings of a snapshot survey suggesting an overwhelming rejection of the ratio-change plans from the early years sector.

Of the 341 early years staff who responded, 95% said they were concerned about increasing childcare ratios and that practitioners caring for children aged two or under should not be looking after any more.

'Missed opportunity'

Similarly, 80% felt the ratios for under-fives should remain as they are. Suggested changes would see both these ratios raised to four children for every staff member.

NCB chief executive Dr Hilary Emery said while there was agreement that the government needed to act in order to make childcare more affordable, "there are widely held fears that allowing providers to take on more children, in the same space with the same number of staff, could put children's welfare at risk and won't necessarily save parents any more money".

The DfE dismissed the survey as non-scientific and named several private nursery providers who it said supported its plans.

It added: "No childcare provider will be forced to use the new ratios as they are entirely optional. Only providers with well-qualified staff will be able to move to use them."

Catherine Farrell, joint chief executive of childcare association, Pacey, said whilst the government's plans included some positives, "it misses a number of important opportunities to improve the quality of childcare that children receive. Furthermore, its proposals to change ratios and introduce childminder agencies are likely to reduce quality for children."

She added that it would be raising its concerns with the DfE.

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