Early years leaders have criticised “short-sighted” plans, being discussed by the government, to relax childcare ratios in England.
Proposals to reduce the numbers of staff needed per child in nurseries were discussed in a brainstorming session with the Prime Minister on plans to tackle the cost of living crisis.
The Department for Education has confirmed talks on reducing ratios have taken place as part of a wider look at “all options to support parents with the availability, choice and cost of childcare”.
It added that health and safety and quality of provision will be of “paramount importance”, with any changes subject to public consultation if taken further.
Sources told the Guardian that Boris Johnson was “on board” with plans to reduce childcare ratios despite similar plans, put forward in 2013 by then early years minister Liz Truss, falling through after a backlash from the sector.
The Early Years Alliance (EYA), which led the Rewind the Ratios campaign against Truss’s plans under its previous name the Pre-school Learning Alliance, has described any future plans to reduce ratios as “absolutely ludicrous”.
“Such a change would be a catastrophic and retrograde step for the early years sector,” said EYA chief executive Neil Leitch.
“What’s more, such a policy would do little, if anything, to lower costs for parents. We know that the vast majority of providers plan to keep their ratios as they are, regardless of any regulation changes, in order to maintain quality levels – and even if a minority did relax their ratios, any savings would be used to recoup years of historic losses, not lower fees.
“By looking at ratios as a solution to rising early years costs, the government has missed the mark and entirely misunderstood what is driving these increases. What we need isn’t deregulated, cheap childcare, but investment in affordable, quality early education.”
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said the discussions showed “a lack of understanding of how the early years sector works in this country”.
“Providing a safe, nurturing and stimulating environment is the main focus for all early years providers and many will be worried about these proposed changes. We risk putting additional pressure on an overworked workforce while undermining efforts to give children the best start in life,” she added.
June O’Sullivan, chief executive of the London Early Years Foundation, said any relaxation of ratios would be “an absolute insult to the sector”.
“Increasing the adult to child ratios will, without doubt, significantly reduce the time available for staff to spend with each child. This is particularly important for the youngest children, our little babies and two-year-olds whose welfare and development are closely linked to social interaction and forming secure attachment relationships with adults,” she said.
“Education minister, Will Quince must now get to grips with why thoughtful ratios are critical for the wellbeing of children and the ability of staff to really support their learning and development. Cutting corners and potentially endangering our children should not and cannot be an option.”
Currently, English ratios allow one adult for every three children under two.
For children aged three or over, England allows qualified staff to look after 13 children each, and unqualified staff to look after eight children.
Last month, children’s minister Will Quince said he would “look into” childcare regulations in comparison to countries like Sweden and France where ratios are less rigid.
A government spokesperson said: “The Education Secretary has been clear that supporting families with access to childcare and early education is a priority for him. We are working with colleagues all over the government to look for ways to improve the cost, choice and availability of childcare places.
“We have invested more than £3.5 billion in each of the last three years to deliver our free childcare offers, including the 30 hours per week for working parents which is supporting thousands of families.”
The reports come as Ofsted revealed plans to focus on the early years as part of its new five-year strategy.