Childcare minister Liz Truss thinks kids in nurseries could thrive with fewer staff. One angry head in Manchester invited her to try out her plan in practice. We took up the challenge
At snack time, nine children aged two and three sit nicely and quietly around the tables munching potato cakes under the watchful eyes of their nursery staff. Five minutes later the peace has dissipated and it’s as if someone has set giant tennis balls bouncing madly around the room. Only Xavier is still at the table, which now needs a good wipe, Patryk is careering towards the door for his mum, who has just been buzzed in, Adam and Nico are clamouring to go into the garden and need help with their coats and hats, Isla is sobbing for her daddy and needs a cuddle, Alfie is bouncing on a cushion, Freddie badly wants a clap of admiration for his Lego tower, and two others need urgent attention in the toileting department.
Even as Patryk leaves for home and they are down to eight, the three staff have their work cut out attending to the children. “We could do with a few extra arms at times,” laughs Catherine Gaffey as she tries to coax a few of the tennis balls to sit down for a story. “It’s not so bad if it’s a quiet time and they are all sitting quietly, but when it’s like this …”
According to the Tory education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss, the eight children now in this pre-school class at the Village nursery in Trafford, Manchester, could be looked after by one person. Gaffey shudders at the thought.
“Well, if that was the way it was, then you’d get on with it. Of course, my job would be much harder, but it wouldn’t be fair on the children. Especially at this age, you’ve got a little one like Isla, who is needing a lot of help settling in still, and others who need to be helped to get to the toilet on time, it would be just impossible to give them the attention, and I’d feel rotten for them if that was the way it was. I don’t think parents would stand for it and I don’t think you’d get many new people coming into the job.”
Such is the frustration at Truss’s comments that Julie Lightley, owner of the nursery, wrote a letter to the Guardian last week inviting Truss to visit “to enable her to test her proposals for one member of staff looking after eight toddlers”. She wrote: “I can tell you for nothing that mums returning to work after maternity leave will not feel happy about leaving their child with one adult and seven other toddlers.”
Picking up her son from the Village nursery, teacher Hannah Goodall was adamant she would give up work and stay at home if there were fewer staff. “If the ratio increased to one to eight for two- to three-year-olds, I would withdraw my children from nursery.
“As a teacher with experience, I don’t believe that my child would get the care, attention and observations that he requires and deserves,” she said. “An increased ratio would without a doubt have a negative impact on the level of care and the child’s development.”
Adam’s mother, Carol Longden, was also horrified at the notion of a new childcare ratio. “I feel that one child potty training at home is stressful enough, so to increase the ratio by such a significant proportion would really not work.”
But Truss said the current rules on pre-school education, which stipulate that nursery workers can be responsible for no more than four toddlers at a time, were “restrictive”. She has suggested that the regulations should be overhauled to emulate the system in France, where young children are looked after in larger groups. French creches for under-threes often operate with fewer members of staff, who are better qualified and better paid than their British counterparts.
Truss said fewer, better-paid childminders would improve standards and bring down the cost for parents. “We need to move to a simpler, clearer system that prioritises quality and safety over excessive bureaucracy,” she said. “Our ratios put a cap on the salaries staff can be paid because of onerous requirements on numbers. If staff are being paid barely more than minimum wage, nurseries struggle to retain and recruit high-quality people.”
But nursery school owners including Lightley, who runs three others in the north-west of England, are appalled at the idea. She said: “Childcare is seen as low paid, low skills and low status, but there is a career pathway there up to degree level and we should be valuing qualified staff – but not at the expense of ratios. I came into this business because I wanted to see quality childcare provision. Here we want to have longstanding members of staff, so that children have stability and routine. They need to see the same staff day in and day out.”
Lightley has a higher percentage than the statutory requirement of qualified staff. “At the end of the day it costs what it costs for quality childcare. Our fees could be smaller if we staffed the nursery with 50% fewer qualified staff, but we have a focus on staff training that is important and I don’t see a model that’s going to cost less and give the same quality.”
She disagrees, too, with the French system which brings the classroom approach to pre-schoolers.
“I think an overstructured day is quite damaging for this age group. I think it’s wrong to have adult-led teaching and the research is there to prove that. Children can get plenty of learning opportunities by playing in the sand instead of being stuck in front of flashcards,” she said.
As in hundreds of other nurseries around the country, Lightley has plenty of examples of parents who work simply to pay the childcare bills. Her nursery fees are £726 a month for a five-day week.
“Overall I’m not even sure the sums would work out. The most expensive part of a nursery to run is the baby room and I hope no one is suggesting you tamper with the ratios there, so actually I’m not even sure Truss’s idea would change much. A reduction in staff numbers with a rise in staff wages – but would it really be enough to reduce fees significantly?
“We have 90 families here. How much do we have to save before we can pass anything meaningful on to parents? They are paying £726 a month for full-time nursery care, and I know there are plenty of people paying an awful lot more than that.”
Surveys suggest that the cost of childcare is forcing women to stay at home instead of returning to work. Recent figures showed that 66% of mothers in the UK are in employment, compared with 72% in France and 86% in Denmark. A study to be published on Mondayby findababysitter.com suggests 2.8 million parents who stay at home would like to work but believe they cannot afford the childcare.
In her comments about childcare, Truss noted that a recent report from the Institute of Public Policy Research, the centre-left thinktank, described the English childcare system as “expensive” and “inefficient”.
However, Dalia Ben-Galim, the thinktank’s associate director for family, said that tampering with ratios was not going to solve the problem.
“To look after eight children all day would be quite a big ask. It’s a bit unbelievable really.
“But upping the ratios sends the wrong message to parents. It doesn’t provide trust and peace of mind that they crave from nursery providers. More worryingly, it asks bigger questions about what that means for regulations. There is a real risk it would undermine quality across the sector and not have a real impact on costs.”
At the Village nursery little Isla’s bottom lip is still trembling as she sits on Catherine Gaffey’s knee, but she is being distracted by jigsaws, Freddie’s plastic tower has been built higher than ever and three of the boys are out in the garden hurtling wooden trucks around a track. Izzy and Maecy are playing sawing off chair legs, with their plastic builders’ helmets on, and the three nursery staff are still attentive and smiling to them all.
Extra arms would still be welcomed, but it’s very difficult to see how all these children could be kept happy with any fewer.