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Nursery Staff: Quality Over Quantity?

Julie Lightley of The Village Nursery takes on MP Elizabeth Truss’ child ratio comments

Written by . Published on January 10th 2013.


Nursery Staff: Quality Over Quantity?
 

THIS week, Elizabeth Truss MP and Under-Secretary at the Department of Education published a blog detailing her opinion on childcare in Britain, of which she reports ‘British parents spend 27 per cent of their income’ on...

Liz Truss MP: We're looking at childcare French-style. More childminders. Fewer but better-paid staff:

There is clearly something wrong with a system where the costs both to government and to parents are high, yet the people employed to look after and educate children are poorly paid. Many childcare businesses are struggling to stay afloat and vacancy rates are increasing, pointing to an overall structural problem. The IPPR recently described the childcare system as “expensive”, “inefficient” and “confusing”. Even Labour’s former children’s minister Beverly Hughes admits that they got it wrong in how they funded childcare.

These issues are resolvable. But it is not just about money: we need to reform the way childcare is organised and provided. There are strong examples over the channel about what good systems look like that provide parents with flexibility and affordability and give children excellent quality care.

"We need to move to a simpler, clearer system that prioritises quality and safety over excessive bureaucracy."

The French use Écoles Maternelles that offer traditional nursery style teaching by teachers in large groups of 3 and 4 year olds. They are so well regarded that the French Government is now extending the opportunity to attend these schools to disadvantaged two year olds. The French crèches for the under-3s are also in much demand. They operate with fewer staff who are better qualified and better paid than their English equivalents. In France, 40% of staff have to hold a diploma, typically awarded following a year of study after the age of 18, and they are paid over £16,000. Each staff member is responsible for up to eight toddlers.

Elizabeth TrussElizabeth TrussThe figure in Ireland and Holland is up to six children. In England staff are typically paid £13,000 and can be responsible for no more than four toddlers. The French also have crèches maternelles, which are organisations providing training, quality assurance, insurance and child placement for home-based childminders, in exchange for a cut of their fees. The Dutch have agencies which operate a similar basis. Both countries have proportionately more childminders than England, which is very helpful for parents who prefer homecare or need the flexibility it provides.

In England, we need to move to a simpler, clearer system that prioritises quality and safety over excessive bureaucracy. We also need to think about the balance between the number and quality of staff in our system. It is no coincidence that we have the most restrictive adult-child ratios for young children of comparable European countries as well as the lowest staff salaries. Our ratios put a cap on the salaries staff can be paid because of onerous requirements on numbers.

If staff are being paid barely more than minimum wage, nurseries struggle to retain and recruit high quality people. In her recent report Cathy Nutbrown pointed out that some childcare workers do not have a C at GCSE in English and maths. Yet we expect them to help our young children learn to speak and do their first sums.

You can read the full blog post here.


Julie Lightley, an early year’s professional at The Village Nursery in Trafford Park Manchester shares her reaction to Elizabeth Truss’ comments:

Dear, oh dear, Elizabeth Truss – you really have got it very wrong when it comes to how to calculate staff/child ratios at nurseries.

You’d hope the Under-Secretary of State for Early Years would have more sense about whether nursery practitioners in England should be allowed to look after more children at once – seemingly not. According to the MP, England's adult-to-child ratios for nurseries and child minders are ‘restrictive’. She also praised the French system, where children are taught in larger groups by supposedly better qualified and higher paid staff.

"The over-simplistic ‘less staff, higher wage = better quality’ equation is an insult to those who currently work with children."

As someone who is responsible for running four nurseries – between them registered to look after over 290 children under the age of four – I can honestly say that plans to increase the amount of children that staff can look after gives me great concern. 

The over-simplistic ‘less staff, higher wage = better quality’ equation is an insult to those who currently work with children. No matter how highly paid someone is, it doesn’t suddenly give them super-human powers to provide rich and developmentally-appropriate care and learning opportunities to eight highly-demanding two-year-olds – all at the same time.  

As they stand, the ratios work perfectly well. Yes, in an ideal world, we’d all love to have an extra member of staff – and good nurseries do work flexibly with these ratios to regularly provide additional support. This enables staff to have time for planning, paperwork, working with others, and generally being the professional that they not only want to be, but one that the Government tells them that they should be. 

Julie LightleyJulie LightleyWhile there are real and understandable concerns about the level of nursery fees – and the Government’s changes to the childcare benefits system and welfare reforms only crystallise these arguments – the answer should not be to slash quality. Parents need to be better supported financially to help pay for childcare that they feel completely comfortable with. I can tell you for nothing that mums returning to work after maternity leave will not feel happy about leaving their child with one adult and seven other toddlers. 

What I would like to do is invite Ms Truss to The Village Nursery, in Trafford Park, to enable her to experience firsthand the demands of the job and test out her proposals of one member of staff looking after eight toddlers. In fact, I would challenge her to just take care of four toddlers. I have a sneaking suspicion that she wouldn’t be too keen on adding another four to the group.

Follow Julie on Twitter @villagetrafford

Visit the Facebook page at www.facebook.com/villagenursery or view The Village Nursery’s website – www.village-nursery.co.uk for further information.

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