Early years settings told they can relax ratios as Covid deemed an ‘exceptional circumstance’


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The Department for Education has confirmed that early years settings struggling with staff absences due to Covid can relax their ratios in line with the EYFS.

It is recognition of the significant pressures that early years settings are facing with the Omicron variant leading to a rise in staff absences.

As we reported yesterday, the number of notifications to Ofsted of Covid more than doubled in the two weeks between 6 and 20 December.

The EYFS already includes the option for settings to relax their ratios in ‘exceptional circumstances’, however this is the first time that the Government has explicitly stated that it considers the current situation with Covid to be an ‘exceptional circumstance’ on which basis the ratio requirements in the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) framework can temporarily be changed.

There is already a provision in the EYFS for exceptions to ratios to be made in exceptional circumstances. Paragraph 3.31 states: ‘Exceptionally, and where the quality of care and safety and security of children is maintained, changes to the ratios may be made.’

However, the move gives reassurance to nurseries and settings that might have been wary of relaxing ratios because they would be concerned about doing so, for example, when faced with justifying their decision during an upcoming Ofsted inspection.

Nursery World understands that the DfE will be updating guidance to clarify that existing flexibilities can be used. 

In an update to Covid-19 and the EYFS and staff-to-child ratios, the DfE stated, ‘It remains a priority to continue providing face to face education and childcare, but we know that Covid-19 continues to put early years settings under significant pressure, particularly in relation to workforce absence. 

‘Government considers Covid-19 to be an exceptional circumstance in which the staff-to-child ratios set out in the EYFS can temporarily be changed if necessary, for example to respond to Covid-related workforce absences. This relates to paragraph 3.31 in the EYFS. 

‘In some cases, providers may choose to respond to staff and child absences by temporarily mixing age groups of children who would otherwise be educated or cared for separately. Ratios should be guided by all relevant requirements and by the needs of individual children within the group. For the purposes of meeting EYFS ratio and qualification requirements, all staff educating or caring for a mixed age group of children can be considered “available to work directly with” all the children who have been grouped together.  

‘We will update guidance to reflect this soon. In all circumstances, settings remain responsible for maintaining the quality of care, safety and security of children.’

Separately, the DfE has today launched a new weekly ‘pulse’ survey to gain a better understanding of the current impact of Covid-19 on both workforce and child absences in early years settings.

It follows a similar survey launched by the National Day Nurseries Association on Monday.

Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, ‘The EYFS already allows for temporary exceptions to ratios rules in exceptional circumstances, and in light of the extreme challenges that many settings are facing as a result of the Omicron variant, we welcome clarification that the Government does consider the pandemic to be an exceptional circumstance.

‘There is no doubt, however, that the safety and wellbeing of all children attending early years settings must always be a priority, and so it is critical that any providers who opt to use this flexibility do so with the utmost care and caution, with any temporary changes underpinned by robust risk assessments.

‘Of course, with the early years workforce already under extreme pressure, moving to a situation where already-stretched staff teams are expected to look after a greater number of children is not a long-term solution.’

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said, ‘The additional flexibility being given to nurseries and early years settings will be important as many are facing daily challenges as to how they can staff their rooms.

‘Nurseries have been managing how they deliver the best quality care for our youngest children safely throughout the pandemic. They are best placed to understand the risks and needs for their own settings.

‘However, we know that this situation is far from ideal. Staff absences will continue to be a major challenge for childcare providers while the numbers of Covid cases remain so high, on top of the chronic recruitment crisis which has been blighting the sector for years. 

‘We are calling for the urgent support this vital sector needs in order to continue supporting children and families.’

Leitch added, ‘While this change may go some way to helping settings cope with the acute problems they are now facing, we cannot forget that the reason the current challenges are so severe is because our sector went into this pandemic in an incredibly precarious position. 

‘Years of poor pay, little support and even less recognition have led to a recruitment and retention crisis which has forced many settings to operate with much fewer staff that they otherwise might. Ultimately these issues must be addressed if we are to ensure that the early years is not put in a similarly vulnerable position in the future.’

  • The DfE weekly survey is completely anonymous and should take around five minutes. It will run during January and February. The first survey is available here.

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