Politics is not welcome in the nursery

January 29th 2013

I write this blog with a sense of anger and despair. Even playing Verdi very loudly and a glass of wine could not quell my alarm.  Why such gloom?  Our Minister Elizabeth Truss has decided to continue with her ill-considered plan to reduce ratios (click here to read the Minister’s speech today at the Policy Exchange in full).  I am not alone in my gloom if the responses from the sector on Linkedin and Twitter are anything to go by. The comments made by the Minister in the Sunday Times and the Telegraph, where she says she has a mandate to change the ratios, makes my blood boil. What mandate?  No one I know has anything but derision for this idea.

She has hardly visited nurseries, ignored all our advice, clearly has never read any research and did a flying visit to France to check two nurseries there and, on this basis it would seem, has decided to reduce the ratios from one adult with four two year olds to one adult with six two year olds. I also understand she will make a similar recommendation for ratios in baby rooms increasing to one adult with four babies.

Her premise is that we can use the reduced cost by cramming an extra two children to every staff member to either pay for a more qualified staff member or reduce the cost to parents. This fails on a number of counts:

  1. The qualification of a staff member has no relevance when you are alone with six two year olds. Qualified or not, little toddlers need hips and laps and lots of love and adult attention.
  2. The reduced staff costs will be increased by agency staff as the permanent staff drop like flies from stress and exhaustion.
  3. Parents will not be happy to find that they have to sign up to higher ratios with more risk to their children for a chance of a very limited fee reduction.
  4. Two tiers of provision may result where better organised nurseries achieving economies of scale may be able to keep ratios higher with poorer nurseries being forced to reduce ratios and decrease the quality of care. I fear poorer children will lose out.
  5. Risk of accidents will increase. What will we do, ban all interesting creative activities and tie them into chairs?

And then a number of further questions come to mind:

  • How will we change nappies and spend time on this intimate activity, talking to the child or enjoying a little singing game when we are trying to keep our eyes in the back of our heads to make sure 5 other toddlers are safe?
  • How will we balance the learning needs of all six toddlers and plan for each of them?  We are being forced to operate a mass approach to childcare causing us as practitioners to fail children and parents in our mandate to provide inspiring, creative and high quality early years education.
  • Has the Minister any idea as to the number of two year olds coming through the Two Year Old Programme that have language and behavioural issues and need additional care and attention?
  • How will we spend any time at all with parents? How will we meet the EYFS requirements?  Ofsted will surely see a decrease in standards.

I could go on and on (luckily I won’t!).  Toddlers aged two years are very different from those aged two and a half or those nearly three.  They need different activities and experiences.  They cannot be put in a classroom and taught.  They need a personal touch, lots of negotiation, high levels of communication and engagement, fun activities indoors and outside. We have a raft of research going back as far as Froebel which identifies the importance of childhood and what works best for our small children. Our longitudinal studies are examples of best practice valued the world over.

Ironically Mr Gove, Mrs Truss’ boss, is trying to reverse some of the political policies which have damaged a previous generation of young adults. I suggest he now make a forensic examination of what his junior Minister is advocating against all advice.  Otherwise he will have presided over a similar legacy as the one he is currently addressing. Except this time it will be of his making.

Remember the words of Graham Green in The Power and the Glory:

There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.