BBC News

Cut nursery staff to child ratio, urges minister

By Judith Burns
BBC News education reporter

image captionElizabeth Truss has argued to change the way childcare is organised and provided in England

Staff at nurseries in England should be allowed to look after more children at once, Schools Minister Elizabeth Truss has urged.

In a blog Ms Truss described England's adult-to child ratios for nurseries and child minders as "restrictive".

She also praised the French system where children are taught in larger groups by better qualified and higher paid staff than in England.

Labour said cutting nursery staff numbers could risk the quality of care.

The current rules stipulate one member of staff for every eight children over three years old. For two- to three-year-olds, each member of staff should care for no more than four children. And for children aged under two, there should be one member of staff for every three children.

Writing for the website Conservative Home, Ms Truss argued that England needed to change the way it organised and provided childcare.

"In England we need to move to a simpler, clearer system that prioritises quality and safety over excessive bureaucracy."

In particular she stressed that other European countries operated successful childcare systems with lower adult to child ratios. She argued that onerous requirements on staff numbers in England "put a cap on salaries" and meant nurseries struggled to "retain and recruit high quality people".

'Ecoles maternelles'

"It is no coincidence that we have the most restrictive adult-child ratios for young children of comparable European countries as well as the lowest staff salaries".

She said that French 'ecoles maternelles', where teachers taught large groups of three- and four-year-olds, were so well regarded that they were now being opened to disadvantaged two-year-olds.

She added that creches for under-threes were also very popular in France: "They operate with fewer staff who are better qualified and better paid than their English equivalents.

"In France, 40% of staff have to hold a diploma, typically awarded following a year of study after the age of 18, and they are paid over £16,000.

"Each staff member is responsible for up to eight toddlers. The figure in Ireland and Holland is up to six children. In England staff are typically paid £13,000 and can be responsible for no more than four toddlers."

But Labour pointed out that figures from last year suggested that the quality of childcare is worse in France than in the UK with higher costs.

The 2012 report from the Economist Intelligence Unit ranked childcare systems across the world. Labour highlights the ranking for quality which puts the UK third and France ninth, the ranking for affordability where the UK is sixth and France seventh, and that for availability where the UK is third and France sixth.

Stephen Twigg, the shadow education secretary said: "David Cameron is presiding over a childcare crisis with 381 Sure Start centres shut down, spiralling costs for working parents and less support through tax credits.

"Now his own children's minister says they plan to cut the number of nursery staff which experts say will threaten child safety and the quality of care for toddlers."

Last summer the government announced a Childcare Commission which would find ways to make childcare more affordable and reduce regulatory burdens on childcare providers.

On Monday the David Cameron reiterated the government's intention to introduce changes to help working families cut the cost of childcare.

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