Blog: At the heart of the matter
Once again, the debate over relaxing childcare ratios has risen its ugly head and once again the Early Years sector is rallying. Back in 2013 the rhetoric was the same. Childcare is too expensive, so if settings could be allowed to care for more children they would then charge less, therefore they parents’ bills would go down, but settings’ income would not be adversely impacted – win win all round, right? Wrong!
Unaffordable but not expensive
First of all, can you genuinely argue that childcare is expensive, given what you are getting for your money? Care and education our most precious resources, our future generations, the future of our planet? However, we should rightly acknowledge that it is unaffordable for many families, given that wages are low, and cost of living is at an all time high.
Nevertheless, the answer is not, and cannot be a pack ‘em in mentality. This is not in anyone’s best interests.
Imagine your boss telling you they want you to do twice as much work, but they aren’t giving you any more time, resources or wages to do it? Would you be happy? So why expect the childcare workforce to accept this?
I read a great analogy by Little Big Childcare in which they said,
‘’Would you approach a taxi driver, and ask them to drive twice as fast, so that they can give you two journeys for the price of one? Or maybe say to a restaurant owner, here’s a table for 4, I know there are 6 people on it, but I’m sure you won’t mind only charging for 4 since you’re cooking anyway.’’
Increased numbers of children mean increased costs
Increased numbers of children mean increased costs to the setting, including resources, such as toilet roll, cleaning products, arts and crafts materials and food, as well as replacing items and extra maintenance due to increased wear and tear. The risks of accidents occurring are definitely higher so the insurance premiums will likely increase too. Therefore, any profit to be made on taking extra children has already been eaten into.
Any remaining profit is unlikely to be passed on to parents as a cost saving on their fees. It will be needed to compensate for the horrendous, historic shortfall in free entitlement funding that has brought the sector to its knees. It will be needed to pay its already overworked, undervalued, dedicated staff a wage that is still nowhere near what they deserve. It will be needed to simply keep the setting viable and open!
Detrimental to staff well-being
Furthermore, caring for more children will be detrimental to the well-being of Early Years practitioners. We have already seen a huge fall in staff numbers. Childminding in particular has seen steady exodus. The sector is experiencing a recruitment crisis that has not been helped by Government changes in the requirements for GCSE maths and English GCSEs to be counted in ratio. Why work in childcare when you can get paid far more in a supermarket, as a cleaner or walking a dog?
Changing ratios may seem like a solution, but all this would do would add to the pressure experienced by those staff who have remained and drive them out too. Some flexibility, such as that currently permitted within the EYFS, is useful, to allow for exceptions during staff sickness for example, or if a Childminder wants to care for an additional child for a short period due to a parent changing their hours, but to make this the norm would be detrimental for all concerned.
In 2018 the Early Years Alliance released their report Minds Matter examining the impact of working in childcare and the early years sector on practitioners' mental health and it made grim read. Sadly, there has been little improvement in the intervening years and in fact, if anything, the situation, is now worse. The pandemic has taken a major toll on early years practitioners’ health, with 50% reporting feeling unwell due to work-related stress, according to a new survey by the Anna Freud Centre.
A Childminders nightmare
Finally, I want to talk about the children. I have saved the best till last!
Picture this scenario.
I am a Childminder, now working with the new relaxed ratios that allow me to have 6 under 8s, with no restrictions. (I’m not suggesting this is what the ratios will actually be).
I have Joe 12m; twins Kofi and Korai 20m, Sofia 26m, Ayesha 36m, Ben 38m
Drop Off: They all arrive around 8.00am. I do quick doorstep handovers. 3 parents apologise that they forgot to apply sun cream and one forgot their child’s hat. Joe’s mum reports he will be tired and cranky as h was up half the night teething. I have to peel Kofi and Korai off Mum, both crying and hitting me. This sets Sofia off and she tries to squeeze past the twin’s mum, out the front door shouting ‘I want my Mummy’. The twins mum manages to block her escape route as I’m grappling the twins. In the meantime, Ben calls me to say Joe has a stinky nappy and is trying to eat his poo!
I swiftly say goodbye to the twin’s mum, herd Sofia into the playroom and put the twins down on the rug, still crying, grab Joe’s change bag and head to the corner to clean him up – it’s not a pleasant sight and he’s not impressed that I won’t let him lick his fingers. He cries and this sets Sofia off again!
Breakfast: I pop Joe in his high chair with some marmite toast (food of the devil), and the others around the table with a selection of cereal, toast and fruit and we have brief calm as Ben chats to Ayesha about the chicks their nursery are raising and everyone tucks in. Joe drops his toast and laughs, then cries when I won’t give him the same piece back. Guess what, this sets Sofia off again. And then the twins… In his anger Joe shoves the toast back in his mouth and then suddenly looks panicky. I realise he is struggling to breathe and give him a solid back slap as first aid training kicks in. Fortunately, this is enough to dislodge the toast, but my heart is racing.
Free play: Ben wants me to look at the tower he has built but Kofi knocks it down before I can get to it as I’m busy stopping Joe trying to eat the playdough Sofia is playing with. Ayesha pulls at my top and I see the puddle at her feet, so I go to help her clean up. Ben asks me to read a story but I’m busy with the twins. I say ‘in a minute’, but I can see from his face he knows that minute will never come.
Out and about: I decide we need some fresh air. We used to go to a local toddler group but now I have 6 children I have been banned. They don’t want childminders ‘taking over’ apparently, so we head for the park. It takes an hour just to get out of the house; tracking down the right shoes for the right feet, getting those who are toilet trained to ‘have a try’ (not easy when they don’t need to go), making sure those in nappies are clean and dry, checking the change bag has everything needed at least three times, making sure we have full water bottles and snacks, applying sunblock, finding hats, putting shoes back on as some have taken theirs off again…
Once out of the door the herding metaphor comes back into play. We have to walk as we can’t fit everyone in the car. Joe, Kofi and Korai are in the triple buggy, the other 3 are walking, in theory, but Sofia and Ayesha are not used to being on foot and tend to wander in opposite directions or stop without warning. They also complain about being tired after 5 minutes. Ben is happy walking but is fascinated by nature and stops to look at every ant, ladybird and pebble on route. He used to enjoy telling me all their names, but I don’t have time to listen now and I need both eyes on Sofia and Ayesha. The park is less than a quarter of a mile, but it takes us nearly an hour by which time Joe has filled his nappy again and Ben needs a wee (and so do I).
Toilet time: I have to park the buggy outside the toilet block as no planners have yet realised that triple buggies need wide doors and Childminders do actually need to use the loo occasionally. I put Joe in a sling and hope his nappy doesn’t leak (it does…), pop Korai and Kofi on reins and usher them, Sofia, Ayesha and Ben through the doorway. Ayesha trips over Korai’s foot and bumps into Sofia – that sets Sofia off again. Ben goes into the cubicle and I remind him not to lock the door. I go into the next cubicle and try my best to spend a penny modestly with a baby strapped to my chest, cubicle door wide open and shared with 3 toddlers, by pointing out lots of fascinating things on the wall opposite, with limited success. I head to the changing table and keep the twins close, by giving them jobs to do such as holding the packet of wipes. I suggest to Ayesha that she ‘has a try’ whilst she waits. I’m part way through changing Joe when Ben calls to say he’s done a poo and needs me to wipe his bottom.
I sort Joe out and we go to help Ben who has of course locked the cubicle door. I find my emergency 2p in my bag and thank whoever that it’s a safety lock and we don’t need to call the council! I help Ben and we all wash hands and go outside. Ayesha pulls my top – I look down at her and see the little puddle at her feet. So much for having a try. Back inside we go to change Ayesha and I thank my foresight in adding a few pairs of wellies to the Mary Poppins style basket under the buggy.
At the park: Finally, we make it to the park. Within seconds I realise my mistake.
This is the first time I’ve been to a playpark without other Childminders since ratios were changed. Usually we keep an eye out for each other’s children and station ourselves at critical points, such as by the swings, roundabout, slide and gate, in order to avert disaster before it can strike. We used to meet together regularly and knew each other’s children well, even covering for each other when we were ill or on holiday. Since the ratio change however meeting up has been almost impossible. Our usual rendezvous spots can’t or won’t accommodate our increased numbers or simply aren’t safe and we can’t go further than we can walk to as we can’t fit everyone in our cars. We used to hold a dedicated Childminder drop-in at a Children and Family Centre, but the Local Authority have closed most of these across the county, leaving just a few, rebranded as Family Hubs (true). Sadly, ours was part of the cull and we have yet to find alternative premises (also true).
I let the twins free and they leg it. Kofi runs towards the swings, Korai the slide. Sofia is already half-way up the steps to the slide. I chase to the swings to rescue Kofi and turn in time to see Sofia on her way out of the gate that someone has left open, Korai shooting off the foot of the slope of the slide and landing squarely on his bottom, hear Ben calling to say he is stuck at the top of the climbing frame and find Ayesha pulling my top to show me a new puddle. I decide it’s time for lunch and that we will never leave the house again…
The sad reality of too many children
This is the likely reality for a lone Childminder trying to juggle and meet the needs of multiple children. It can be like this with just 3 children depending on their age and stage of development, never mind 4, 5, 6 or even more.
In the end no one gets what they need, and safety is compromised.
In this scenario I’m too busy at drop off to listen to the parents properly and provide to comfort and reassurance the children, especially the twins needs. I don’t even realise how unsettled Sofia is, or the danger she is in and were it not for the swift action of the parent she could have easily have run off and been hurt or worse
I’m distracted at the breakfast table. I don’t join in with the conversation, missing opportunities to support personal, social and emotional development and communication and language development through conversation and sharing in children’s interests, extend learning (hatching chicks), and support the children’s growing independence skills. I fail to keep Joe safe from choking by not supervising him properly as he eats.
Ben is missing out. He remembers when I had time to read stories with him and help him create elaborate constructions. Ayesha has regressed and now has regular toilet accidents. I need to discuss this with mum as I suspects it’s partly due to the new busyness at the setting
Going out is an exercise in getting it done rather than a learning opportunity. It’s barely even enjoyable. There’s no time for the children to practice life skills like putting on their own shoes or applying their own sunblock or discussing why sunblock is important. It’s a chore, as is getting to the park. I’m not available to Ben to share in his fascination with minibeasts and other wildlife, I just want to get from A to B in one piece, which is a feat in itself.
The park is an accident waiting to happen. I cannot keep the children safe there. There is not enough of me. It might be doable with a different mix of children, six 4-year-olds for example who have a better sense of danger and are able to follow rules.
Within this short snippet of a day these children are put at risk on numerous occasions and by the end of the day their parents will all have accident and incidents forms to complete.
I will have had few, if any high-quality interactions and engagements with them. There will have been little time for serve and return connections, vocabulary building, exploring mathematical and scientific concepts together, or even simply playing together. It will have been an exercise in crowd control.
The children are missing many of the opportunities to mix with other adults and socialise that they had previously as I no longer attend groups or meet up with Childminder colleagues. This is detrimental to both their personal, social and emotional development and their communication and language development.
Why do it? Sold out by Government fiction
So why might I have chosen to go down this route? I am an experienced Childminding professional. I know all about the importance of the first 1000 days and the value of having interested, available, responsive adults in brain development. I’ve read up on the EPPE and REPEY projects and other research so I should know better.
The truth is that I have had to bow to pressure from parents who have been sold a story by the press and Government of greedy childcare providers raking it in at their expense. Parents who have been told that Government have ploughed millions into Free Entitlement (it’s not free, it’s funded!) and Tax-Free Childcare and have solved both the childcare recruitment crisis and cost issue by relaxing ratios but those greedy childcare providers aren’t reducing their fees even though they could. This then set the expectation in parents’ minds that settings were overcharging (we are not) and so one by one settings began to fold.
This is a fictional scene, but it is one that could easily become true, should the Government choose to push ahead with its ill-advised considerations.
No better for group settings
The scenario above is based on my experience as a Childminder but the situation is no better in group settings where they already have worse ratios than Childminders: 1:3 under 2s; 1:4 2yos; 1:8 3+yos. It’s incredibly tough providing rich, nurturing, responsive and sensitive interactions and learning opportunities to three babies or four two-year-olds simultaneously, alongside feeding, changing and all the other practical tasks that need doing. I invite the Minister to give it a try sometime! Then we have the ludicrous notion that a teaching qualification enables one to somehow develop the ability to meet the needs of an extra 5 children, as if this qualification endows one with extra arms to cuddle with, more knees to sit on, additional lips to read multiple stories with, and the superpower to be in several places at once!
Increasing the number of children each practitioner is required to care for will result in in a reduction in the quality of care each child receives as practitioners can only spread themselves so far and they are already spread too thinly, with their own well-being at an all-time low.
Plea to the Minister
I strongly implore Minister for Children and Families, Will Quince MP, when he goes on his travels to research childcare models in other countries, just as his predecessor, Liz Truss, before him, to remember that they need to be viewed in context. You cannot pick up a model from Finland, Sweden or even Scotland and simply plonk it down in England. Our systems work differently, have evolved differently, are funded differently, stem from very different cultures and values. Where ratios appear to be lower these are not as straightforward as they seem. Qualified staff ‘in ratio’ are well supported by additional unqualified staff, whereas in England up to 50% of staff in ratio are unqualified.
Existing ratio flexibility
There is existing flexibility withing the current EYFS that enables settings, including Childminders, to use their professional judgement to make exceptions to existing ratios. The criteria to allow for this are set out for Childminders but let to interpretation for group settings. Ofsted’s stance on this is ‘just because you can does not necessarily mean you should’ which has led to inconsistent application of the guidance by inspectors. If this could be resolved I believe this provision allows sufficient flexibility already for temporary changes to ratios to accommodate short term family needs, cover for staff illness etc. as it makes it clear than such changes can only be implemented where children’s needs are not compromised. I have successfully and safely cared for four children instead of three, using an exception, having risk assessed. The children were aged 2, 3, 3 and 4 and all well used to the setting. I may have thought again had they all been aged 2 and under!
Solutions not obstructions
Childcare providers are not trying to be obstructive with their objections. They want to provide the best possible childcare; childcare that is both accessible and affordable; but not at the cost of children’s safety or the mental well-being of their staff.
The sector welcomes a dialogue with the Minister but one in which it is genuinely heard and actually listened to. The evidence is there. Even the DfE’s own research has previously shown that higher staff to child ratios improve children’s outcomes. Talk to sector experts. Talk to the Early Years Alliance, PACEY, NDNA, Childcare.Co.UK, talk to those on the ground like David Wright at Paint Pots, June O’Sullivan at LEYF – they know!
Start funding childcare properly. Invest in the infrastructure. Invest in the future. Show respect for those educating the future.
A tragedy waiting to happen
Finally, talk to the parents of Oliver Steeper or Millie Thompson and other parents of babies and young children who have tragically lost their lives whilst attending a childcare setting. Could you ever forgive yourself, Minister, if yours were the hand signing the document relaxing ratios that potentially led to another such death?