There’s a depressing feeling of déjà vu in the early years sector at the moment with the news that the government are considering reviewing staff ratios in nurseries.  We’ve been here before, in 2013, when the Early Years Alliance successfully led a campaign to overturn similar plans by Liz Truss, who was then early years minister. The rationale for the renewed suggestion is the same as it was then, mistakenly thinking that by relaxing the rules to allow practitioners to look after more children would somehow make childcare less expensive.  That might be a logical conclusion, if the current situation was somehow overly generous in saying that a practitioner can care for up to three under-twos, or four two-year-olds, or up to eight three-and four-year-olds (or up to 13 if they have a relevant degree). It does make you wonder whether anyone contemplating that idea has ever experienced work with young children.  The current ratios do not guarantee high quality, but they certainly help to keep children safe, and to prevent chaotic situations when more than one child is in need of one-to-one attention (nappy-changing and toileting springs to mind!) There is no evidence that relaxing the ratios would reduce costs to parents; the unintended consequence is more likely to be an exodus from the sector of practitioners who are already exhausted.

The biggest challenge facing the early years sector at the moment is undoubtedly recruitment, with the inadequate levels of funding being a major contributory factor.  If we could pay our highly professional staff teams what they deserve, instead of only what we can afford, based on our income from parental fees and the funded places, we would be able to attract and retain the best practitioners more successfully. No-one chooses to go into early years for the money, but with the current cost-of-living crisis, not everyone who does enter the sector can afford to stay in it. It’s a fabulously rewarding profession in other ways, but it’s undervalued and poorly paid, relative to the amount of responsibility and sheer hard work involved.  With females comprising 97% of the workforce, we’re failing to attract the male half of the population, which is partly due to salaries, and partly due to gender-stereotyping, and a lack of awareness and encouragement from schools and other influencers of career choices.

I am confident that the sector will again be successful in quashing the idea of relaxing staff ratios – parents might be desperate for fees to be more affordable, but no-one wants to see a reduction in quality. Practitioners certainly wouldn’t welcome such a move - however skilled and highly qualified each practitioner may be, they only have one pair of hands each. Recruitment would be even more difficult if there was any pressure on practitioners to care for even more children, and there are many nurseries already having to limit places due to recruitment difficulties, so the situation could easily worsen.

Most worryingly of all, such a move would further reinforce the two-tier nature of current provision. High quality provision is expensive, and it shouldn’t be limited to children whose parents can afford high fees.  The government need to wake up to the fundamental problem of inadequate funding, not make the mistake of thinking that making early years practitioners work even harder than they already do will do anything to solve the problem –we need to attract more recruits into this vital sector, not drive them away.