'Real risk' of lowering childcare standards with proposed workforce changes

Critics are worried that government plans to relax rules for childcare providers could drive down standards, Stacey Foster reports

A relaxation of hiring rules of early years staff has been labelled a "desperate attempt" by the government to boost workforce numbers that could lower childcare standards in the UK.

Plans are underway to extend 30 hours of free childcare to more parents but critics of the proposals say the sector is already struggling to fill a huge number of vacancies and it will not be able to cope with the additional pressure.

To ease concerns, the government has opened a consultation process to "boost the early years workforce and remove unnecessary burdens that the childcare sector face" - but the plans have only raised further worries.

Proposed changes include:

  • Relax requirements dictating what qualifications are needed per adult per child

  • Remove the requirement for level 3 early educators to hold a GCSE or equivalent maths qualification, and instead apply it requirement to managers-only;

  • Introduce an experience-based route to help staff enter the childcare workforce without and gain ‘approved status’ without having to do a new qualification.

But the Early Years Alliance, a group which supports care and learning to more than 800,000 families every year, said the proposals pose a "real risk" for children.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, accepted many of the proposals had been called for by some within in the sector, but said: "It’s hard to shake the feeling that many of the proposals have nothing to do with quality, and everything to do with a desperate attempt to boost workforce numbers ahead of the extension of the 30-hours offer.

"Taken together, there is a real risk that they will result in a de-professionalisation of the workforce at a time when the need for quality care and education is as high as it's ever been."

He said a move to press on with relaxing staff-child ratios has "almost universal opposition", adding: "We remain concerned that the government’s desire to create more ‘free childcare’ will be prioritised over and above the need to deliver quality early education opportunities."

“We’re clear that any changes to qualifications requirements must not – and cannot – lead to a lowering of standards within the early years sector, and will fully oppose any attempts to do so.” 

The work and pensions secretary has denied there will be a lowering of standards, insisting there is "no question of watering those down but that doesn't mean that you can't look at the way the regulations work".

Speaking to ITV News, Mel Stride said: "The consultation that's being carried out over the next couple of months is being informed by the ideas from providers and others and of course we'll look at everything in the round and make sensible decisions."

Minister denies changes would lower standards

The consultation was announced alongside other childcare policies designed to encourage parents back into work.

From June 28, the maximum childcare payments parents can claim from the government will increase by almost 50%.The amount parents on Universal Credit in Great Britain can claim back monthly for their childcare costs will rise to £951 for one child, and £1,630 for two or more children.

It's an increase of 47% from the previous limits of £646 for one child or £1,108 for two or more children.

And eligible parents entering the workforce or significantly increasing their hours will get upfront help from the government to cover their first month’s childcare.

The Department for Work and Pensions says parents will get up to 85% of their childcare costs back before their next month’s bills are due.

This is to ensure they have money to pay one month in advance going forward.

Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride said: “These changes will help thousands of parents progress their career without compromising the quality of the care that their children receive.

“By helping more parents to re-enter and progress in work, we will be able to cut inactivity and help grow the economy.”

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...