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Primary Education News
News Parent groups join nurseries to fight new carer ratios
Mumsnet and Netmums unite with nursery providers to demand government plan to decrease carer-to-child limits be abandoned
Parents are joining forces with Britain's top nursery chains in a revolt against plans to reduce the number of carers required to look after babies and toddlers – amid stark warnings the safety of children would be compromised.
The two leading internet forums for mothers – Mumsnet and Netmums – unite this weekend with top private and voluntary sector nurseries to demand the reforms be abandoned.
Under the government's plans, announced in January by the childcare minister, Liz Truss, ratios for two-year-olds will rise from four children per adult to six, and for one-year-olds-and-under from three children per adult to four. Ratios for three-year-olds and over will remain at eight or 13 children per adult, depending on whether a qualified graduate is present.
Truss says the plans will improve care as the higher ratios can only apply where better qualified staff are present. She believes that, as standards rise, operating costs will fall, meaning lower fees for parents. However, the proposals have led to a wave of protests, with experts and nursery operators saying they will create a two-tier service, with nurseries in more deprived areas raising the ratios while those in more affluent areas, where parents can afford to pay more, will keep them the same.
In a serious escalation of the row, the largest membership organisation for nursery schools, the Pre-school Learning Alliance, which is also the biggest voluntary operator of nurseries in deprived areas, accused Truss of conducting a "sham" consultation that has led to a "ridiculous" and dangerous policy.
Writing on the Observer website, Neil Leitch, the alliance's chief executive, who speaks for 14,000 nursery school operators, says: "At some point the consequences of her [Truss's] actions will come back to haunt us.
"Children will suffer physically and emotionally, and I hope she is as keen to defend her policies then as she is to implement them now – but I doubt it. She says that the government has consulted on these proposals. Rubbish."
The alliance has launched a government e-petition, www.rewindonratios.com, which, if it gains 100,000 signatures, could force ministers to grant a Commons debate. Backing the petition, Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, said: "When we asked our members about the cost of childcare, only 5% of parents backed ratio relaxation, even if it meant lower costs. We think the government needs to rethink its plans."
A separate survey of parents for the alliance found that 84% of mothers were against childcare ratio changes, even though they might lead to a cut in their childcare bills.
Pressure on the government to cut the cost of childcare is intense, partly because it has committed itself to providing free care for 130,000 two-year-olds from underprivileged families from this September, and for 130,000 more from September next year. Local authorities, already strapped for cash, have a statutory obligation to find and fund the places and have an interest in seeing charges fall among private and voluntary providers.
However, even some of the government's own advisers are critical of the route chosen. Professor Eva Lloyd, who co-authored a report commissioned by ministers which has yet to be published – despite being delivered months ago – told the Observer that Truss's blueprint was "a deplorable document". She added: "There is absolutely no evidence that changing the ratios will help nurseries become more sustainable or bring greater choice to parents. But there is a real risk of doing harm to vulnerable children."
None of the biggest five companies that run nurseries in this country is now backing the change in ratios. The managing director of the biggest of all, Busy Bees, Marg Randles, says the company will not change its ratios or do anything that would be detrimental to safety, while the second biggest, Bright Horizons, is seeking a meeting with Truss to address its concerns. However, a Department for Education spokesman said: "All the evidence shows that quality and safety in nurseries and other early-years settings are linked to high-quality staff. Only high-quality providers will be able to take advantage of the flexibility that our reforms on ratios offer – which countries like France and Denmark already use successfully. The OECD has said that staff qualifications are the best predictor of the quality of early childhood education and care.
"Indeed, many of the largest childcare providers in England already operate higher ratios in Ireland and Scotland, but no one is suggesting quality has suffered there as a result. Of course, it will be up to professionals to decide what is best for the children they look after, and up to parents whether they choose settings with better-quality, but fewer, staff."
Andy Morris, chief executive of Asquith Day Nurseries, the UK's third biggest private operator, has told parents he will not change the ratios. He said: "To me, this ill-conceived scheme is more about buying the government votes than about properly caring for the nation's children. Liz Truss talks about the need to improve quality in the sector – but the death of a child will not be a price worth paying for cost savings."
Claire Burgess, early years consultant for Norland, the early years training college, said that while she backed any move that would improve qualifications for carers, she was against higher ratios.
"Higher qualifications do not mean more pairs of eyes and arms. Such a move could potentially compromise safety and mean a lower quality of care."
Siobhan Freegard, founder of the UK's main parenting site Netmums, said: "All the evidence shows young children thrive best on one-on-one care – so to suggest one person, however qualified, can adequately care for four babies or six toddlers at once, as the new ratios will allow, is nonsense."
Last week Truss caused further controversy when she condemned "chaotic" pre-schools that she said allowed children to do what they want all day long. She said children were "running around with no sense of purpose".
Answers to parliamentary questions revealed last week that she had conducted official visits to six nurseries, most of which had received glowing Ofsted reports.