The government has just published its response to the Nutbrown Review and, to judge from the howls of anguish coming from the early years sector, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Minister plans to address staffing ratios by ordering the slaughter of every firstborn child.
The key proposals are:
- For group settings, relaxed staffing ratios (1:4 under twos and 1:6 two year olds, instead of the present 1: 3 and 1: 4) for settings which meet new criteria (to be agreed) for staff qualifications
- For childminders, no changes to the number of children that they are allowed to look after, but more flexibility over the ages
- A new status of Early Years Teacher (EYT) from September 2014, equivalent in status to, but not identical with, a qualified teacher. These will be graduates specialising in early childhood. Existing EYPs will be given EYT status
- A new status of Early Years Educator (EYE) from September 2014. This will be awarded to learners achieving qualifications which meet a new standard (to be agreed). The EYE will be based on the old NNEB but with lots of practical work experience and an apprenticeship route. English and Maths GCSE at grade C will be an entry requirement. Existing qualified staff will retain their status.
- An end to prescriptive rules about floor space, nursery layout etc, which in future will be left to providers’ professional judgement
- An end to local authority inspections, with Ofsted to be the sole judges of whether settings can offer funded early years education. The £160 million which local authorities currently retain to fund inspections, which often duplicate or conflict with Ofsted’s, will be redirected to frontline funding.
- An easier registration process for schools wishing to provide care for under threes
The proposed relaxation of staffing ratios has caused the most controversy. But before we simply write off these proposals as wicked and dangerous, let’s apply some of the numeracy skills which nursery staff will have to demonstrate in future.
In the UK, there is statutory control of both staffing ratios and minimum wage. With staff costs representing such a high proportion of a nursery’s cost base, the state thus effectively determines the minimum level of nursery fees. And fees, as we all know, are too high.
So if we can’t reduce staff costs, and we can’t increase fees, the only other place to go is the profit margin. Very few settings today can squeeze these any further – as I know as well as any, having recently acquired a loss making nursery which we are working hard to turn round.
But the sector rightly wants to raise the status of its staff too. This will inevitably mean higher salaries to attract better entrants into the profession.
Nobody wants to see children packed in to crowded, understaffed nurseries. But there is nothing magic about the present ratios as distinct from any others. They weren’t handed down to us by Pythagoras, nor based on detailed quantitative research. They began life as guidance more than 30 years ago, and were the result of a political compromise.
If a modest, controlled relaxation allows us to pay better money for better staff, it may just be worth a try. Of course, there will always be settings who take advantage of the changes to increase profits without giving anything back. But the market, and Ofsted, will find them out.
Yes, the government could do more in other ways to make childcare affordable. But the sector is not immune from change. It seems to me that some of our members want not just to have their cake and eat it, but for the taxpayer to buy it for them as well.