“Nursery Changes” – The Latest Assault In The War on Education

“Parents to have more choice of high quality childcare.” So says the title of the Press Notice issued by the Department for Education on 29th January 2013.

Liz Truss, MP – Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Education and Childcare) – says the proposed changes will make more childcare places available, and reduce costs to parents “long term”.

The main thrust of the change is the official determination that the current Early Years workforce is “poorly paid and poorly qualified”. The secondary point, is that childcare is prohibitively expensive for many, and so some parents find it too expensive to return to work. The third point is the overhaul of the regulatory process, intended to increase the amount of funding heading straight to “the frontline”.

One of the main proposals is the ‘relaxation’ of maximum adult:child ratios that must be adhered to  within settings (and by ‘settings’, I mean nurseries, day nurseries and Pre-schools, sometimes referred to as PVI settings – Private, Voluntary and Independent settings). Proposed changes for childminders are slightly different. The current adult:child ratios for settings are

  • for children aged 1 and below – 1:3
  • for children aged 2 years – 1:4
  • for children aged 3 and above – 1:8, or 1:13 in a teacher-led group

The proposed changes are as follows:

  • for children aged 1 and below – 1:4
  • for children aged 2 years – 1:6
  • for children aged 3 and above – no change

This proposal is in conjunction with the overhaul of qualification requirements. If a setting intends to ‘relax’ its ratios, it can only do so by employing a higher qualified practioner:

“We propose to allow nurseries to relax ratios only where they hire highly qualified staff. Nurseries without highly qualified staff will need to stick to existing ratios.” – Liz Truss, MP.

So, why all the fuss? Why is the general feedback from the industry (with a few exceptions) overwhelmingly negative? Well, first of all, let’s think of the children. In the Early Years stage, children are developing language, social understanding and environmental understanding. It is during this stage that they learn to walk, talk, form relationships, count, recognise letter sounds, make sense of the world, use the toilet, and perform a broad range of daily tasks independently. Attending an early years setting is a huge step for an under five, and it is vital for their confidence that they form early attachment relationships – particularly with their key worker. If their key worker is responsible for a greater number of children – even just one extra – that reduces the amount of time available to spend building that relationship, and therefore the ratio ‘relaxation’ has a negative impact on the child.

Now think of the adults. Working in an early years setting is not a babysitting job, and these dedicated people that this government now refer to as “poorly qualified” have worked to achieve the qualifications that were, until now, required . The DfE Press Notice states that “The current system doesn’t work. We have a poorly paid and poorly qualified Early Years workforce with many not having grade C in GCSE English and Maths.” This paints an incredibly negative picture of settings being operated by uneducated individuals when, in fact, it is the case that every setting must have a Leader qualified at a minimum of Level 3. That is what has been required – that is what is adhered to. They may not all have degrees, but they are qualified in Early Years Care and Education.

Many settings have the benefit of an ‘Early Years Professional’, as a result of a scheme launched in 2007 intended to provide a clear path of Continued Professional Development for Early Years Providers. Even this government concede that those with Early Years Professional Status will be considered on a par with their proposed Early Years Teachers – these mystical ‘highly qualified’ individuals that are going to appear and save our terrible childcare system.

Early Years staff do not just supervise your children. They do not just befriend them and make them feel better when you leave them for the session – although that is a very important part of their role. Early Years staff engage with your child as an individual – playing as far as the child is concerned, but actually constantly observing and assessing, and planning ‘next steps’ tailored specifically to that child. All of these processes are meticulously recorded and produced in a lengthy and detailed document, referred to as The Learning Journey. This enables the staff to guide your child – in the subtlest and most balanced of ways – at the child’s own pace and in the direction most appropriate to them. Now, maybe these staff do not all have “a grade C in GCSE English and Maths”, but they are, in general terms, highly trained and experienced in the job that they do.

And what happens to these existing staff in these new proposals? These staff that have been leading these settings and demonstrably improving national outcomes over the past three years? If they work in a setting that chooses to ‘relax the ratios’ and employ an ‘Early Years Teacher’, it appears they will simply be superceded. “People will train at Level 3 to become  Early Years Educators…They will often act as assistants to Early Years Teachers.” (“More Great Childcare – Raising Quality and Giving Parents More Choice” DfE, January 2013) Where are the plans, such as the Early Years Professional scheme, to help practitioners qualified to Level 3 work within their setting to achieve Early Years Teacher status?

And then there’s the money. How will this reduce costs to parents in the long term? Settings increasing their ratios can take more children, bringing more money into the organisation, but isn’t that cancelled out by what will presumably be increased staffing costs – since half of the argument is that staff are poorly paid? If even the now allegedly inadequate Level 3 ‘Educators’ are underpaid, they will need a pay rise, along with the higher qualified, and therefore more expensive, Early Years Teachers. In addition, a major issue facing smaller PVI settings in the current economic climate is increased premises costs – but the government makes no mention of this.

In the report “More Great Childcare – Raising Quality and Giving Parents More Choice” (January 2013), the DfE say

“We recognise that the youngest children need more attention from adults, both in terms of their development and for practical reasons, such as the need to change nappies…However, we think that experienced and well-qualified staff are capable of looking after another child and so, for providers employing these staff, we will increase the upper limit to four babies.”

As a parent and former Chairperson of a local Pre-school, I have a problem with the fundamental premise of this statement from a healthy and safety point of view. Achieving a higher qualification makes you better able to provide basic care for four babies instead of three? They give out additional sets of hands at graduation ceremonies?

We are assured that these changes are not mandatory, and settings can decide whether or not to take advantage of this option to ‘relax’. But they are now caught between a ‘rock and a hard place’. Thanks to government rhetoric, parents are now susceptible to the suggestion that settings choosing to operate on the lower ratios may have less qualified staff. Increasing the ratios with a higher qualified leader will undoubtedly compromise quality. And then there’s the ‘streamlining’ of the regulatory system – removing the “burden” on Local Authorities to perform additional inspections and enforce standards – and installing Ofsted as the “sole arbiter of quality”. So, everything will hang on the Ofsted rating. If these changes are not mandatory, they cannot affect an inspection, right?

“We think teacher-led settings with full ratios and structured activities are a good thing. Ofsted will favour this too. We do not mean to stipulate how settings should behave, but we want parents to have a choice.”

“Ofsted will expect providers to justify the staffing structure they use.”

“More Great Childcare – Raising Quality and Giving Parents More Choice” DfE, January 2013

This government has increased university fees, devastated the exam system, and now are radically manipulating Early Years childcare – feeding us this toxic medicine with the promise that we’ll feel the benefit in the “long term”. It is an attempt to return to a top-to-bottom two-tier education system and, by extension, a two-tier society.

Everything in the world flows from education. If ever there was a fight to be fought – this is it.

(DfE Press Notice: http://www.education.gov.uk/inthenews/inthenews/a00220984/parents-choice-hq-childcare)

(“More Great Childcare – Raising Quality and Giving Parents More Choice” DfE, January 2013: https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/DFE-00002-2013)

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