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Welcome to the Author Blog for Sheila Nutkins. Here you will find information and Sheila's own thoughts and opinions on topical issues relating to early childhood education and care.

Friday, 29 March 2013

Debate about ratios and qualifications in childcare settings

A few weeks ago there was a proposal to increase the ratio of children to carer in daycare settings.  Another 'wheeze' from the government purporting to be an improvement.  I sent the following to Michael Gove and similar to Stephen Twigg and Liz Truss:

Dear Sir,

I was interested to hear comments from Stephen Twigg, shadow for education, and discussion today on the proposed changes to childcare ratios.  I was glad to hear him challenging the proposals but rather disappointed that the argument seems, as usual, to be based solely on issues of cost and safety.  I feel he could and should be predicating his argument on what is best for children’s development and learning.  I would be interested to hear your own views on this matter as your voice was significantly absent from the debate on the news programmes earlier today.  There is a wealth of evidence now to support the fact that the human brain develops and children learn most quickly and significantly in the first 3 years of life.  This lays the foundations for life and again there is a wealth of research that tells us these early years are our best and most cost effective opportunity to intervene and try to ensure a positive outcome for any child.  For me, this is the strongest argument against increasing ratios. 

There is no evidence to suggest that allowing  a childminder to care for more children under five or for a nursery setting to take in more one and two year olds per member of staff will a) reduce costs for parents, b) reduce costs to the taxpayer, c) raise the quality of the care given.  It seems to be suggested that these greater numbers of children would be cared for by ‘better qualified’ staff.  It was suggested in the Tickell Review report that qualifications needed to be raised in the childcare sector but this ended up in the final report being watered down to a recommendation about basic standards of literacy.  We know, from our work in the field here in Scotland, how difficult it is to raise the level of qualification in a sector that is almost entirely staffed by women, many of whom lack basic qualifications as a starting point and many of whom are getting the minimum wage (or indeed less as they are 16 – 18 years old).   There was no suggestion in the news reports today that there was a concurrent proposal to fund further education and training for those working in the sector.   It is hard to see how this proposal will make childcare cost less for parents or increase pay for staff and it is very hard to see how it will increase the opportunities for the kind of quality interactions and play opportunities  that we know support very young children’s learning and development.

It would be good to hear politicians talking about what is in the best interests of children, as per the UN Convention and the Children’s Act, for a change, rather than simply costs and getting mothers back to work.  The suggestion that this would move in the direction of daycare provision in Sweden is utterly spurious.  In Sweden the state supports parents in a number of ways and children experience daycare in a family grouping providing consistency of care from more highly qualified, specifically trained and better paid staff.   I would direct you to the chapter in the book below written by my colleague and co-author Catriona McDonald who lived and worked in Sweden for 20 years, for a better understanding of the differences.  As I think I heard Stephen Twigg say today on the radio it is not possible to take one element of provision from another society and transport it to the UK where there is so much less support for parents.

Again, it would be good to see politicians drawing on the expertise of those working and studying in this sector, those with knowledge of other approaches and indeed on the research – much of which is carried out and published here in the UK.  You might usefully draw on evidence and initiatives here in Scotland (which might also support the ‘Better Together’ campaign), and I would direct you to Sir Harry Burns, Chief Medical Officer for Scotland, who again spoke powerfully just last week here in Aberdeen justifying a drive for better provision for our youngest children.   I hope discussions continue on this issue and trust that we will hear more about education and the best interests of the child in future.

These letters only elicited a standardised response from Michael Gove's office two weeks later and nothing from any other quarter but I was very pleased to see an article from Polly Toynbee at the time that  gave rise to some heated debate in the Guardian and then comments from Cathy Nutbrown last week, reported in the Guardian at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/mar/22/nursery-reforms-vulnerable-children-adviser saying the following:

Vulnerable young children will suffer as a result of ministers' plans for reform of early years education, a government adviser has warned.
Prof Cathy Nutbrown denounced the government's plans to increase the number of toddlers nursery staff can look after as "nonsense".
Reducing the staff-to-child ratio will dilute the quality of experience the youngest children receive in nurseries, even if staff have better qualifications, she said.
She described plans for a new early years teacher (EYT) qualification as "insulting and misleading" because those obtaining the title will not be granted qualified teacher status putting them on a par with colleagues in primary schools.
Nutbrown, from Sheffield University's school of education, called for enhanced training and status for early years professionals in a government-commissioned report on childcare qualifications, published last year.
But she said it was clear that most of her recommendations had been rejected or watered down in the government's More Great Childcare proposals, unveiled in January by the education minister Liz Truss.
The Department for Education said that under its reforms only high-quality providers would be able to have additional flexibility and the reforms would bring the UK's preschool sector into line with France and Denmark.
The proposals envisage better training for nursery staff – including the EYT qualification – but also set out plans to increase the number of two-year-olds each adult can care for from four to six, and for under-twos from three to four.
A survey undertaken by the National Children's Bureau and published in full on Friday found that 95% of nursery, local authority and managerial staff working in childcare were concerned about the increasing ratios.
In an open letter, Nutbrown said: "Trading staff-child ratios for higher qualified staff is nonsense. Watering down ratios will threaten quality. Childcare may be cheaper but children will be footing the bill."
Setting out the results she expects from cutting staff numbers, she said: "The difference will be too few adults with too many little children; too few moments in the day for a toddler to have uninterrupted time with their key person, and too few early years practitioners to talk and work with parents.
"Who will suffer most? The youngest, most vulnerable children. Their parents, who will know that their little children will get less attention, less conversation, less holding, than they need.
"And with them, their early years practitioners who – though they may be well-qualified – are unable to provide the best that they can because they have had their greatest resource (their time for children) reduced."

She said policy mistakes would have knock-on effects for years to come, warning ministers: "Young children must not bear the costs of government getting this wrong."
Nutbrown said many nursery staff wrongly believed the EYT qualification would give them parity of status with school teachers.
"Yet again, those who work with younger children are offered a lesser status (and we should realistically anticipate, poorer pay and conditions that those who work with older children) but a title that makes them appear to have the same role and status," she said.
Commenting on Nutbrown's letter, Sharon Hodgson, the shadow children's minister, said: "The government's own expert adviser has echoed the concerns of parents and nursery staff that the quality of care for babies and toddlers is being undermined by this government."
She said David Cameron and the education secretary, Michael Gove, needed to "listen to Professor Nutbrown" and the government plans were "a serious threat to childcare quality and child safety".
"Experts say they won't do anything to drive down costs. Since these plans were announced, Labour has been calling on ministers to think again – it's time they listened," Hodgson said.
A Department for Education spokesman said: "Professor Nutbrown's review provided a valuable contribution to the development of our proposals for early education and childcare. We have taken forward several of her important recommendations but we recognise that reforms and improvement need to go much further if we are to give parents a proper choice of high quality childcare and early education.
"All the evidence shows that quality and safety are linked to high-quality staff. Our reforms mean that only high-quality providers will be able to have this additional flexibility.
"Our preliminary work suggests providers will be able to attract quality staff: using the new ratios could enable nurseries to pay staff up to £3,000 more per year.

May 9th - further comment on news media as Nick Clegg waded into debate with the view that this is unworkable and could be damaging.  Response from Liz Truss that 'it is about reducing costs which are too high'.  My response - yes we thought it was all about cost but it is unlikely to help in that respect either - certainly not cost to parents.  It may help government budgets by enabling more mothers to work and provide work for others in the care sector but the most likely outcome is reduced quality of care and more children in poor quality care for longer.  The long term outcomes of this for everyone are negative in every way - including financial.

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