Thursday, 10 January 2013

Elizabeth Truss and nursery ratios: why there is no case for change

Elizabeth Truss MP

The decision of Elizabeth Truss, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (education and childcare), to think out loud about ratios in early years settings on conservativehome tells us a lot about who she planned to please, and who she wasn't too bothered about offending. On cue, the Conservative press - the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph - signalled their support for deregulation and making childcare more affordable, with the Mail offering a cheery "bonjour to cheaper childcare". Likewise, in just a few days the specialist press started to report on a rising sense of anger, with Nursery World whizzing out a piece from  nursery owner Julie Lightley that begins "dear, oh dear, Elizabeth Truss – you really have got it very wrong when it comes to how to calculate staff/child ratios at nurseries."

I'm afraid I don't find this very illuminating. The Daily Mail's "bonjour to cheaper childcare" doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. The most recent robust international comparison of money spent on early years childcare and education which I can find is from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECDand dates back to 2006. It shows England spending 0.47% of GDP [PDF] whilst France spends "at least 1% of GDP" [PDF] - it is harder to calculate the exact amount in France because there is a mix of funding from national and local government. So, how about the Mail revising its headline to "say bonjour to higher taxes and higher government subsidy for childcare?"  

Equally suspect is Julie Lightley's challenge to Ms Truss: "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 on 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!" Whilst I sympathise with the sentiment, it's a problematic take on the issue which assumes that this is simply a question of common sense around group care for children, something which anyone could have a go at in order to draw their own conclusions. To make an analogy which I hope is helpful - there are many reasons to disagree with Jeremy Hunt over the direction of the NHS, but could you imagine a surgeon challenging him to come and have a go at a routine operation and then see if he still thinks his reforms are a good idea? 

To be fair to Elizabeth Truss, there is some very good research which questions the preoccupation with low ratios. Back in 2002, Tony Munton et al wrote a very thorough briefing for the Department for Education which makes several very telling points. Firstly, they comment (p. 25) that "judgements about the adequacy of adult:child ratios will depend on the purposes of the services involved in research i.e. the pedagogical theories and practices that apply to the provision ... Different countries will often provide different answers to these questions. Consequently, it often makes no sense to make simple comparisons between ratios found in different cultures or countries."

Munton et al also note (p.40) that "the experience of Denmark and Sweden suggests that national standards are not a necessary requirement of high quality services". In both those countries, politicial de-centralisation has gone hand-in-hand with high standards of staff training and pay, and democratic participation in the design of services: "in general a good child:staff ratio has been built up in the centres in alliance with the parents and political opinion in general, so it is not possible to cut down (personal communication from Jytte Juul Jensen)".

They also comment that (for example, in the case of Austria) "ratios in practice are often better than those set as minimum standards" (p.41). 

So, the research would concur with Elizabeth Truss that there are questions to ponder around ratios; but it certainly would not concur with the conclusion she appears to have reached already, that ratios are "restrictive" and should be relaxed. Munton et al concluded (p. 59) quite clearly that "higher staff:child ratios are associated with better quality childcare".

Although this is the most comprehensive research into ratios from an English perspective, it is undoubtedly old. So you may wonder whether more recent international research has come to different conclusions. It hasn't. 

The OECD's authoritative international overview of early childhood services in 2012 finds (pp.11-12) that "Working conditions can also improve the quality of ECEC services. Research has indicated that staff job satisfaction and retention – and therefore the quality of ECEC– can be improved by: i) high staff-child ratios and low group size; ii) competitive wages and other benefits; iii) reasonable schedule/workload; iv) low staff turnover; v) good physical environment; and vi) a competent and supportive centre manager." 

Likewise, in its research brief "Minimum Standards Matter" the OECD concludes that "Staff-child  ratios play a key role in ensuring quality for better  child development (OECD, 2006).  It  is generally the most consistent predictor of high-quality learning environments because it increases the potential for frequent and meaningful interactions (Pianta  et al., 2009; UNESCO, 2004). Children are found to perform better in cognitive areas at age 15 when enrolled in programmes of longer duration with high staff-child ratios and high per child expenditures ... High staff-child ratios can also ensure
safer environments for children since staff have a lower number of children to look after (Pianta  et al.,2009)." [PDF]

Even more tellingly, the OECD's review of the quality of services in England comments that "on policy input indicators, England performs below average on ... the quality indicator “staff-child ratio” in child care" [PDF]

The conclusions of the New Zealand Ministry of Education's comprehensive "Quality Early Childhood Education for the under two year olds" are consistent with the messages from the OECD. The authors find (p.7) that "adult:child ratios of 1:3 are considered ideal (Expert Advisory Panel on Quality ECE and Child Care, 2009; Muenchow & Marsland, 2007; Munton et al., 2002) to enable the style of interaction needed for optimal outcomes for children ... Adult:child ratios provide pre-conditions for positive interactions, but the nature of the child-teacher interactions may be determined by other factors (Goelman et al., 2006; Milgrom & Mietz, 2004). Ratios interact with higher levels of staff satisfaction, which interact with other factors like appropriate levels of remuneration (Goelman, et al., 2006)."  

They also comment (pp4-5) that "attachment relationships are seen in some contemporary research contexts as ‘the curriculum’ for under-two-year-olds (Raikes, 1993). In a meta-analytic study of the security of children’s relationships with non-parental care providers, Ahnert, Pinquart & Lamb (2006) reported that group size, adult:child ratios and caregiver sensitivity are all implicated in the formation of attachment relationships. Gevers Deynoot-Schaub and Riksen-Walraven (2008) likewise highlighted the importance of favourable adult:child ratios (1:3), and the need of caregiver education for work with very young children."

Overall, the research doesn't conclude that there is no discussion to be had about ratios - there are other factors to bear in mind, like levels of staff qualification and pay. It is not clear from the international evidence that centralised, state-imposed standards are necessary. But - and this is a very big but indeed - the research does make a very convincing case for the importance of good adult:child ratios in childcare and early education. The OECD even point out that ratios in England should be improved, not relaxed. 

It hardly seems prudent for England to take a course of action in contradiction to the very best evidence we have from current, international and peer-reviewed research - especially given how much we now know about the importance of early child development. It's one thing for the minister to open up a debate about the interactions between ratios, levels of qualification, programme design, and public subsidy. But it's something else to spin a message that holds out a promise of cheaper childcare without properly reviewing the international evidence or thinking through the consequences.

Read more of my posts on More Great Childcare:

Leading researchers warn that government proposals will "lead to an unintended reduction in quality"

Professor Denise Hevey's comments on More Great Childcare

Can we afford not to provide high quality early education and care? Cathy Nutbrown responds to More Great Childcare

When is a teacher not a teacher?

Liz Truss on ratios and qualifications - an ill-considered announcement