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Tuesday 29th January 2013 | 15:46
By Heather Spurr
Early-years experts have warned that changes to staff ratios in nurseries could hit England's poorest children.
The warning came as education minister Elizabeth Truss laid out plans to increase the number of two-year-olds a nursery worker or childminder can take care of from four to six, with the ratio for under-ones rising from three to four.
Audience members at Policy Exchange questioned the minister how parents and staff would cope with the changes, which include increasing staff ratios in nurseries and raising qualification requirements.
After Ms Truss’s speech, childcare experts told PoliticsHome the reforms would hit children living in poverty.
A Headteacher in an east London school said: “My initial prediction would be that it would widen the difference between poorer and affluent areas.”
Julian Grenier, Headteacher of Sheringham Nursery School and Childrens Centre in Newham, said that wealthier parents would merely seek out nurseries with higher child-staff ratios, whilst poor families would be left with finding lower-staffed organisations because they were cheaper.
The Government was trying to fund better-paid and better-qualified staff by cutting the number of people that needed to be recruited, he explained.
June O’Sullivan, the chief executive at a London childcare charity, agreed that less well-off families would be worst-hit.
Ms O’Sullivan, of London Early Years Foundation, said the planned reforms were “ambitious”, but urged the Government to be more specific on how the changes would be funded.
“We didn’t get to the nitty-gritty but of who is paying for this,” she said.
Ms Truss was asked in a Q&A session why she was going ahead with the reforms, despite “no evidence” to support the move
She answered: “Ratios are a factor of course they are. But we're not increasing them beyond European levels. We’re increasing them to the level that other European countries operate at…
“Given that we've got the lowest ratios in Europe and also the lowest salaries, we haven't got the balance quite right.”
Tory MP Chris Skidmore praised the move, saying it was a “welcome reform that will give a break to working mothers."
“We simply can’t continue with the status-quo – I would have thought this [move] would support hard-pressed families," the Education Committee member said.
“This is about creating a new market [in childcare],” he added. “It’s about trusting the market.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said:
“We are proposing to allow nurseries to relax ratios only where they hire highly qualified staff. Nurseries without highly qualified staff will need to stick to existing ratios. Today we have launched a consultation on the proposed changes to ratios and encourage people to respond.
“We want to ensure that early education is of the highest quality, staff are paid better, and childcare is affordable to parents.”
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