Childminders and nurseries can look after more children

Rise from three to four pre-school children per staff member as restrictions on registered childminders also lifted

A relaxation in the number of pre-school children that nurseries and registered childminders can oversee will be announced on Tuesday as part of a move to professionalise the pre-school workforce and cut the cost of childcare in England.

Elizabeth Truss, the early years minister, is to propose that childminders, currently restricted to looking after three children per staff member from the ages of one to five inclusive, should be allowed in future to look after four children. They would also be permitted to look after two children under one year of age, instead of the current one.

Truss will seek to allay parents’ fears of their children being neglected by over-pressed staff, pointing out that the relaxation she proposes still leaves more restrictive ratios than Denmark, France and Germany – three countries often seen as providing high quality care for pre-school children. The minister will quote experts claiming that in Britain more qualifications are needed to look after animals than toddlers.

She is also proposing that nurseries be allowed to relax their ratios when qualified staff are present, so that instead of one staff member to four children aged two, the number would rise to one to six. In the case of one-year-olds, the permitted staff to child ratios would rise from the current one-to-three, to one-to-four. The ratios would rise further if a fully-qualified teacher is present. She will also relax how these rules are interpreted.

The flexibility has been welcomed by many childminders’ organisations, but labelled “unacceptable and a recipe for disaster” by the Pre-School Learning Alliance, the largest representative organisation of early years providers.

The Department for Education said the proposals were dependent on staff possessing higher qualifications, including Grade C GCSE maths and English. The DfE said: “England’s relatively tight ratios have two main effects: higher costs for parents and lower pay for staff. In turn, low pay drags down the quality of the workforce. In other countries providers can use the extra income they get from taking on more children to reduce fees for parents and pay staff more, but this is not possible in England.”

Truss is also to propose that “one stop shop” child agencies be given more freedom to help home-based childminders. But Labour has attacked the proposals. Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said, “Experts are warning this could threaten child safety and won’t reduce costs. Parents will be worried”.

Truss will tell the Policy Exchange thinktank: “We have seen a decrease in the number of childminders over recent years – this is, in part, because childminders have to be business owners. Some people want a simpler way to enter the profession and parents want to be assured of quality. So we are setting up ‘one stop shops’ called childminder agencies to do the practicalities and to give parents some reassurance over quality.”

She added she would introduce graduate-level early years teachers specifically trained to teach young children. Only 23% of nursery staff, and 10% of home-based childminders, are qualified to A-level standard or equivalent.

Her controversial announcement is a precursor to a wider set of proposals to help families with the cost of childcare, now bogged down in coalition politics, which are unlikely to emerge until late February.