How to adjust ratios and maintain quality

October 6th 2022

There is little doubt that the Recruitment and Retention issues facing the sector continue to cause concern and are impacting on the ability of more and more providers to meet the needs of children and parents. This problem started to emerge in 2015 when completion of the Level 3 award fell from 83% to 75% in 2016.

In 2018. the Education Policy Institute predicated that it would get steadily worse and suggested that this downward trend may be down to the increasing financial strains on the sector, increasing cost of obtaining qualifications and lack of financial and status incentive to pursue higher qualifications.

The Government, led by Liz Truss thinks that we can solve the problem by increasing the child to staff ratio.  I disagreed with her in 2012 when she was the Childcare Minister and I still disagree with her now as Prime Minister.  However, in the interest of survival I think we need a discussion to look at some solutions.

So, we asked the question: Can we rethink how we delegate staff across rooms based on experience and knowledge rather than qualifications in a way that retains high quality education and care?

Early Years sector roundtable discussion with Ofsted

To kickstart the discussion I invited 10 nursery providers, (including owners of one setting and some with over 100) and  Wendy Ratcliff from Ofsted to discuss the idea and any other associated ideas. I also shared my thoughts with the DfE who are responsible for the EYFS. The starting point for the discussion was the familiar statement from the EYFS on page 1 that states:

Every child deserves the best possible start in life and the support that enables them to fulfil their potential. Children develop quickly in the early years and a child’s experiences between birth and age five have a major impact on their future life chances. A secure, safe and happy childhood is important in its own right. Good parenting and high-quality early learning together provide the foundation children need to make the most of their abilities and talents as they grow up

Nursery Teacher playing dinosaurs with children

EYFS questions for discussion

The question for discussion was whether we rethink how we delegate staff across rooms based on experience and knowledge rather than qualifications in a way that retains high quality education and care? The discussion would also need to consider the impact on the quality of the experience for the child if it was poorly applied or misused.

However, this was set against the concern about the current situation where we are dependent on transitory agency staff employed to meet compliance requirements. The argument is whether having a person with a Level 3 in a room with children to meet the compliance requirement is better than having an unqualified staff member, who is familiar with the children and the routine and loves the children. It is a tough call either way.

Section 3.31 of the EYFS states that

The ratio and qualification requirements below apply to the total number of staff available to work directly with children. Exceptionally, and where the quality of care and safety and security of children is maintained, changes to the ratios may be made. This applies to all settings, but childminders cannot have more than six children under the age of eight per adult providing care. For group settings providing overnight care, the relevant ratios continue to apply and at least one member of staff must be awake at all times.

Call to action on flexibility to Early Years ratios

The discussion was frank and thoughtful from solution-focused colleagues dealing with this issue daily.  The focus was on how we turn new entrants, especially career changers into qualified staff quickly and safely and do so in a way that retains experienced older people who will buddy new staff.  The following 10 actions were agreed to be shared with the DfE.

  1. Apply the flexibility of ratios (as stated above) to the delegation of qualified to unqualified staff during the beginning and end of the day so we can focus all our qualified staff on the core day. We protect the children and staff by providing a risk assessment for the delegation plan which explores how informed management judgement are excepted within a shared understanding  of “exceptional” in line as stated in guidance 3.31.  All unqualified staff on the rota have attended a set of essential training course which could be shaped into a Level 1 Introduction to Early Years certificate covering essentials such as Paediatric First Aid, an Introduction to Safeguarding and Understanding the Setting’s Pedagogy.
  2. Students completing a Level 3 Diploma get a Level 2 midway, so the route to qualification is phased and reduces the risk of speeding up and weakening the Level 3 Diploma
  3. Clarify how to use the Level 6 and the 1 to 13 ratio. For example, is it for a room? Is it for number of children? Clarify if this confusion the reason for not using Level 6 across the sector or simply a rejection of this child to staff ratio.
  4. Either scrap the Maths GCSE or rewrite it so it’s a relevant qualification with more relevant content for staff working with children under five. Consider the risk of such an action on the principle of equity with other teachers by no longer having the same entry requirements as them.
  5. Close the gap for the End Point Assessment as it’s too long and disconnected from the whole qualification.
  6. Consider a top up for the health and social care.
  7. Rethink how we fast track previous degree /qualifications through a conversion route.
  8. Fund a government-backed campaign to raise the profile of the sector and attract new staff.
  9. Help Secondary schools understand what a career in Early Years would look like for their students so they can encourage pupils to explore the option.
  10. Meet with agencies to discuss the role of agency staff.

Overall, we had a sensible and thoughtful conversation.  Some of you, like me, have been in the sector a long while and recognise that some of these ideas are not new but a rehash of other projects that were stopped because of funding, cost or lack of take up. We now need to make some decisions as to what we as a sector do.

We all agree that the recruitment won’t improve for a while. We must therefore wait for our pipeline of apprentices and students to complete their qualifications and meanwhile we need to retain our experienced staff to coach and support them when they arrive in the settings.  Let’s agree then what options would best balance that situation with giving the children the best experience.  We must do something that are solutions that can be actioned.

Tell me what you think? Tweet @juneosullivan or write directly to me.