Ministers warned 'unsafe' proposals to relax childcare ratio will put children at risk

Ministers are considering changing the early years staff-per-child ratio from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds, following a public consultation launched in July. Credit: PA

Ministers have been asked if they would be comfortable placing their own young children into childcare if relaxed adult-to-child ratios go ahead.

They faced pressure to abandon the proposal as a petition warning they will put children at risk reached over 109,000 signatures.

Labour MP Catherine McKinnell called on the government to heed the warnings from bereaved parents, calling for the "unsafe" proposals to be scrapped amid warnings they could cause "irreparable and catastrophic damage" to the sector.

Ministers are considering changing the early years staff-per-child ratio from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds in a bid to reduce the cost of childcare, following a public consultation launched in July.

The petition was started by Zoe and Lewis Steeper, whose nine-month-old son Oliver died in hospital last September after he choked on food at his nursery in Ashford, Kent.

His death is the subject of an ongoing police investigation.

Ms McKinnell, chair of the Commons Petitions Committee, told MPs that relaxing the ratio would increase the chances of an emergency.

“The warnings from early years experts couldn’t have been more stark: deregulating childcare ratios in the current context without significant other changes in training and funding will put the safety of children at unacceptable risk," she said.

“Staff are already reportedly leaving the sector because of the stress and the overwhelming sense of responsibility to protect the best interests of children.

“Relaxing childcare ratios would heighten the potential for an accident to happen, and it would increase the chances of an accident leading to an emergency, and parents share that fear too.”

Ms McKinnell said Oliver’s parents were “horrified” by the changes being considered and had started the petition to “make sure that the government listens to the evidence, looks at this properly, and does not take a kneejerk response to saying we are doing something to bring down the cost of childcare”.

She added: “I wanted to put one final question to the minister, which comes from Zoe and Lewis, Oliver’s parents, who started this petition and are here with us today, and it does rather cut to the chase: would government ministers be happy to put their two-year-old child in a one-in-five setting?”

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Commenting on the proposals, Lewis Steeper, Oliver's father, said the proposals will "endanger children" and "have a severe effect on staff members’ mental health".

"Changing ratios, adding greater risk is not the solution and with our petition now at a staggering 107,100 signatures, it is a powerful objection to these changes being proposed,” he said.

The government has said that changing the ratio for two-year-olds could reduce childcare costs by up to £40 for a family paying £265 per week, if providers adopt the changes and pass all savings on to parents.

But Ms McKinnell questioned whether the £40 saving would be passed on, and claimed the plans were a “sticking plaster approach to a gaping wound in our early years sector that desperately needs some wholescale reform and review”.

The petition comes to Parliament as 17 childcare interest groups have written an open letter warning there is a “serious risk” that the system will fail without adequate government support and a clear long-term strategy.

The groups, including Coram, the Early Years Alliance, Save the Children, and the National Education Union, wrote: “Underfunding and the pandemic have left the sector fragile and in need of urgent support.

“To create a better early years system, any changes need to be made in partnership with families and providers.

“The need for reform is urgent, and the government must provide a long-term vision focused on improving the quality and affordability of childcare and early education, rather than papering over the cracks and deepening the current crisis.”

Education minister Claire Coutinho said she understood “really important and emotive issues” were at the heart of the petition, and struck a conciliatory tone, telling MPs: “I do want us to get this right and I want us to look at it very carefully.”

She went on: “Safety has got to be paramount to what we are trying to do, but I think at the same time thinking about the affordability of childcare, looking at some of those flexibilities for providers, looking at how we can make sure that staff feel that their judgment is being trusted, I think those things are important as well.

“In that context I think it is right that we have put forward this consultation and of course when we come forward we will set out some of the results that we have had from that and also the providers’ impacts assessments that we have done alongside it as well.”

The UK is close to the top of the world table in childcare costs Credit: PA

Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, said it was "extremely frustrating" that the government was appearing not to heed the warnings and said relaxing ratios would "do untold damage to the sector".

“The arguments put forward in this afternoon’s debate clearly showed there is simply no case to change ratios. As such, we hope against hope the government will finally recognise that far from solving the so-called ‘childcare crisis’, relaxing ratios will only make an already-dire situation even worse. 

“Time and time again the sector has urged the government to rethink this policy, but so far, these calls have fallen on deaf ears. We once again urge the government to rethink this retrograde policy as a matter of urgency, before it does irreparable and catastrophic damage to the early years sector.” 

Lauren Fabianski, Campaign and Communications Manager at Pregnant Then Screwed earlier said the plan to relax ratios "is not an effective solution".

"The childcare sector is on its knees, thousands of nurseries have closed already this year. Asking staff to look after more children will not enable the 84% of nurseries that are struggling to hire more staff to entice new talent, retain precious staff nor will it ease the consciences of the 85% of parents who do not want to see ratios increased.

"If the government moves ahead with this ridiculous policy it could well be the straw that breaks the camel's back, a price we will be paying for decades to come."