Childcare is again at the centre of a political wrangle thanks to Nick Clegg revealing, albeit indirectly, that he is opposed to ratio changes, which would increase the number of young children that childcare professionals can look after. The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) was delighted that the Prime Minister responded by saying he will now hold further discussions on these proposals, to find a way forward. It is good that at long last government is finally listening to the concerns of parents and professionals alike.
PACEY and its members are opposed to the proposed ratio changes but there is more to be concerned about in the government childcare strategy than just ratios. In particular PACEY is increasingly concerned that the divergence of views on ratios reflects a wider lack of joined-up thinking within the Government as well as between Government and its key partners, such as Local Authorities and Ofsted. All of whom have a distinct role to play in developing good quality childcare for families.
The initiatives that are meant to improve childcare quality and affordability, such as the ratio changes and the proposed changes for Local Authorities, actually risk damaging quality childcare in this country.
The Government is proposing to change ratios for children in nurseries and allow childminders to care for more children under five. This will make it increasingly difficult for childcare professionals to deliver high quality care to children. This is why so many providers are rejecting the idea and stating that even if the ratios change, they will not adopt them in their childcare setting. At the same time, Ofsted has announced a fresh focus on improvement and set out how it will place a greater focus on childcare providers its grades as 'requiring improvement' under its new proposals.
Ofsted ratings have been shown to drive up quality and we are supportive of the role they play. For example since childminders started to be assessed by Ofsted in 2001 quality has improved, with 71% of registered childminders now achieving good or outstanding gradings. However, the ratio increases will make it harder for childcarers to deliver safe and high quality care. These two changes are at odds; gradings may fall and quality decrease.
There is also confusion around how the ratio changes link to higher qualifications requirements or training. In nursery settings the proposed higher ratios can only be delivered by better qualified staff, but this isn't the case for childminding settings. For childminders in England there is still no qualification requirement whatsoever to enter the profession or any indication from Government how childminders can be encouraged to undertake the Early Years Educator qualification. So Government claims that ratio changes go hand in hand with better qualified practitioners isn't true across the board.
The core argument in favour of ratios is that changes will mean more affordable childcare. Again this argument isn't backed up by evidence. Independent research we have supported through IPPR shows that the majority of childminder say that they will not increase their ratios, and if they did they wouldn't reduce their fees. Likewise for nursery settings we are yet to see any evidence that increasing ratios will mean they make more money or help them to hire better qualified staff. What's more other costs are increasing for childcarers. Government proposals to remove local authority responsibility to keep registered providers trained and up to date will mean individual settings will have to make more direct investment in their training and development. Government is also removing the subsidies for DBS checks that registered providers currently benefit from. So, whatever the decision on ratios, costs are likely to increase for most providers.
It is vital to ensure that Government takes a far more joined up approach to its childcare plans and recognises the potential conflict in many of its proposals. If it does not, PACEY is concerned it will lead to less affordable quality childcare for families.