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Department for Education criticised for ‘biased’ survey on childcare ratios

Article By: Julia Corbett, News Editor

A survey asking parents for their views on childcare ratios and qualifications in nursery settings has been criticised by the Pre-School Learning Alliance for being biased and unscientific.

The Department for Education has been accused of limiting the reach of the survey by using social media sites Facebook and Twitter to receive responses instead of publishing it on the Department’s own website.

The survey posed questions such as ‘Would you ask the nursery manager to provide qualified staff?’ and ‘If staffing levels changed, would it influence you to change your child’s nursery?’ and the Department for Education has been criticised for phrasing of questions to create an unrealistic interpretation of the opinions of parents who respond.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Alliance, said: “We are extremely concerned that once again the Government appears to be using ratio changes as a money-saving measure – and, what’s more, that they have deemed it appropriate to collect evidence on this issue through such an unbalanced, biased survey.

“Anyone who has read the survey will have seen that the way the questions are phrased is likely to allow for a misleading interpretation of the findings.”

This summer the Government scrapped plans to relax ratios for children in nursery settings after fierce criticism from the sector, including the Alliance’s e-petition signed by 16,000 people.

A poll on also showed the huge opposition to the proposals with 82 per cent of people saying relaxing staff ratios would reduce the quality of care in nurseries.

Shadow Minister for Children and Childcare Lucy Powell questioned Education and Childcare Minister Elizabeth Truss, in the House of Commons this week, about the purpose of the ratios survey put out on Twitter and Facebook and whether the results will be published.

Ms Truss responded: “In 2008, ratios were changed so that nurseries could have 13 children aged three and over per adult when led by a teacher.

“‘More Affordable Childcare’, published in July 2013, said that the Government would “continue to encourage providers to employ graduates, by making greater use of the existing 1:13 ratio for three- and four-year-olds where there is a teacher, Early Years Professional, or other suitably-qualified graduate working directly with the children.

“We want this flexibility to be used more widely because evidence shows that teacher-led provision improves outcomes for children.

“The survey was designed to inform our understanding about what barriers might be preventing early years providers from using this existing flexibility. There was no additional, external cost to this activity beyond the normal use of existing departmental resources. The survey was posted on a website for just under a week and has now concluded.”

Under the proposed changes put forward earlier this year in ‘More Great Childcare’, ratios for two-year-olds would have increased from four children per adult to six children per adult, and ratios for ones-and-under would have risen from three children per adult to four children per adult.

Although the option for providers to have a 1:13 ratio for three and four year olds is still available, the Alliance has urged the Government to respect providers choosing not to, and claimed the survey represents the Government’s dismissal of views of childcare professionals.

Mr Leitch said: “My concern is that the DfE will use this to put pressure on settings to move to the 1:13 ratios – or even make such a move compulsory – even though both providers and parents have made it clear that they do not support such change.”

Neil Leich,chief executive, Pre-School Learning alliance

Due to the phrasing of some questions in the survey, the Alliance is worried the Government could use the survey to show they are backed by parents.

Mr Leitch continued: “During the debate on childcare ratios over the summer, the early year’s minister argued that early years providers should be able to ‘make decisions for themselves and to exercise professional judgment.’

"Settings are well aware that graduate-led providers can move to a 1:13 ratio for three- and four-year-olds, and yet the vast majority choose not to do so, as they believe that this would result in poorer quality provision – so why is the Minister not respecting their professional judgment on this?

“I would suggest that the Government is well aware that most practitioners do not, and will not, support a move towards 1:13 ratios, and so has decided to dismiss their views altogether. Instead, they have cobbled together a biased, leading survey that will allow them to falsely claim that they have the support of parents on this matter.

PACEY(Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years) has also criticised the survey and questioned the usefulness of any information gained from feedback.

Liz Bayram, chief executive of PACEY said: “PACEY is concerned to hear that the Department for Education is consulting parents on childcare ratios, given that there was widespread criticism of the department the last time it proposed this reform.

“PACEY already knows, from the hundreds of Netmum users and PACEY members who shared their concerns over ratios with us, that increasing child to carer ratios will have a negative impact on the quality and safety of care our youngest children receive.

“We also question how this crude approach to gaining parent feedback is going to provide the DfE with any meaningful information.

“Instead of trying to cut costs for providers by increasing ratios, Government should focus on ensuring existing childcare funding reaches frontline providers so that all childcare professionals - childminders, nannies and nursery workers - have enough funds to improve their professional expertise and deliver the best possible care for children.

“No matter how well qualified you are, there are only so many under-fives one person can safely care for.”

Mr Leitch of the Alliance concluded: “The Government has made a lot of promises around improving the pay and status of the early years workforce, but yet again are unwilling to make the kinds of investments needed to make this happen. Instead, they are asking children to pay.

“Yet again, there is little to no focus on what is best for the child. One of the survey questions asks whether parents base their nursery decisions on location, costs, number of staff or qualification levels – but what about quality of provision, the way staff interact with children, how happy and engaged the children are?

"Until the Government starts prioritising the needs of children above balancing their books, they will continue to come up against strong opposition from the sector, and rightly so."


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