On 14 November 2022, parliament debated an e-petition objecting to the lowering of adult to child ratios in early years childcare, which the government had proposed in response to rising costs for families. For two year olds, the government wants to increase the maximum number of children to five per adult. And childminders would be allowed to care for up to three children under three in certain circumstances. The petition in opposition to this had 109,000 signatories. It transpired that most of the cross-party assembled, particularly those who were parents of young children themselves, saw the government proposal as ill-advised.
Reducing adult-child ratios in childcare will make a bad situation worse
Matters under discussion in the debate included:
- A recent survey by Pregnant Then Screwed found that childcare costs have forced 43% of mothers to consider leaving their jobs and 40% to consider leaving work.
- Government funding for three-year-olds and four-year-olds does not cover childcare settings’ costs at the moment, meaning that any savings will be highly unlikely to be passed on to parents.
- Overworked childcare staff are already being paid less than many supermarket and warehouse workers, and many have considered leaving, citing stress, and a crushing sense of responsibility which would increase if ratio changes compelled them to care for and protect too high a number of children.
- Relaxing ratios would only exacerbate this stress, by heightening the potential for serious accidents, which would in turn create greater stress for parents.
- Infants need focused attention from caring adults to develop language and cognitive skills, and reducing ratios would reduce quality. This would be most particularly damaging to children from disadvantaged homes.
- Reducing ratios would create a tiered system based on ability to pay, where parents who could only afford basic prices would have to place their children in low adult-child ratio care, while those who could afford higher prices would be able to access more expensive care with higher adult-child ratios.
“Completely unworkable” costly plans that will increase stress and reduce quality
Catherine McKinnell, MP for Newcastle on Tyne, commented, “The plans seem completely unworkable to me. They are entirely unsupported. I searched far and wide in preparation for this debate and could not find one expert who thought they were a good idea”.
As a chartered psychologist with a specialisation in child development, I can assure her that there will be no such experts, because plans to reduce ratios are in fact a very bad idea. And, further, that the children’s workforce are also impatient with the wasted time spent on debating ill-informed cost-cutting policy ideas for children’s services that will create situations liable to increase stress and reduce quality.
There is of course also the potential that such measures would actually increase public expenditure, in terms of mopping up the fallout (in this case, dealing with an increase in toddler accidents presenting to hospital A&E departments).
However, while it is quite reasonable to focus on the physical dangers of a reduction in adult to child ratios, there was no reference to emotional and social development, which is equally important.
The hidden dangers of insecure attachment
Psychologists have studied human ‘attachment’ for nearly a century. One of the most enduring theories is that of the development in the first three years of life of a social-emotional ‘internal working model’ (IWM), based on the interactions that the infant has with caring adults.
This model, which has lifelong endurance, informs human beings of what they can expect in terms of social and emotional support from others, and of their own level of ‘lovability’. It is proposed that stable and loving relationships create an ‘other people are nice and I am lovable’ IWM, whereas troubled and fragmented relationships create an ‘other people are unkind and I am not lovable’ IWM.
Children who lack emotional support altogether develop a form of learned helplessness, which gives rise to a defence mechanism of responding dismissively to other people’s attempts to help. Those who learn that emotional support is only sporadically and unpredictably available develop a preoccupied/fearful emotional response style, constantly seeking reassurance from others, due to an underlying concern that support might not be forthcoming when needed.
Insufficient numbers of adults in a setting caring for under threes is highly likely to give rise to large numbers of children who do not receive sufficient amounts of adult attention. Where adults are stressed and rushed, despite their best intentions, children are highly vulnerable to develop a damaged IWM, which impacts lifelong upon future relationships.
Sufficient amounts of adult attention (which begin to drift away at any ratio above that of one adult to three children under three) are thus crucial for healthy emotional development. Building such strong bonds of attachment in childhood is crucial for lifelong individual mental health, and ultimately, for cohesion and mutual trust in society in general.
The neuro-physiological evidence
With the growth of developmental neurobiology research in the early 21st century, additional neurophysiological evidence emerged to support the importance of secure relationships in infancy. A range of studies discovered abnormally raised levels of the stress hormone cortisol in young children placed in situations in which they did not feel secure in the care that they received; this has physical implications for the developing brain.
The main brain structures that are affected by chronic excess secretion of stress hormones during childhood (hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and amygdala) are differentially involved in various cognitive functions (e.g., memory, emotion regulation, encoding of emotional memories). High cortisol levels have been linked to poorer executive functioning across three cognitive domains: self-control, flexibility and emergent metacognition (the ability to reflect on one’s own thoughts).
It is therefore not just a matter of physical safety that is at stake when adult attention in childcare settings working with children under three is compromised. And although children between three and seven can cope with slightly higher ratios, those who live in families where early relationships have proved problematic lose the chance to make some amount of emotional recovery if they are placed in a setting where they receive insufficient adult attention.
Early years workforce training disrupted by political differences
The committee also discussed a number of concerns about the low levels of training received by early years practitioners. But no one present seemed to know that the Labour government of 1997–2010 had made great inroads into dealing with this problem, only to have the initiative curtailed by the incoming Conservative-led coalition directly they came into power.
The Labour government funded the Effective Provision of Pre-School Education project, which produced findings indicating that outcomes for children, particularly those from a background of disadvantage, were improved when practice in early years settings was led by a graduate practitioner.
Early Years Professional Status (EYPS) developed from this basis, under the administration of the now-defunct Children’s Workforce Development Council (CWDC). It was agreed that a new qualification for early years leaders should be delivered at graduate level, training students to become experts in child development theory and practice relating to working with young children and their parents.
The stated target was that, by 2015, at least one Early Years Professional (EYP) would lead practice in every full day care setting. EYPS was introduced as a qualification that was to be equivalent to Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), but different in nature, focused on the development of children under five.
4600 individuals (CWDC figures, March 2010) qualified as EYPs across the nation over 2006-2010. They were, however, ignored by the incoming coalition government, whose intention was to revert to a purely health-oriented model of services for young children and their families.
Pay scales for EYPs had never been fully agreed, and as this debate continued, the coalition government swiftly curtailed the discussion by making it known that they intended to take an entirely new route: funding the training of a similar number of health visitors to the number of qualified EYPs currently available, thus replacing people whose expensive training had already been funded by the state.
Early Years Professional Status: discontinued and now forgotten
In 2013, Michael Gove’s Department for Education formally discontinued Early Years Professional Status, revising it into Early Years Teacher Status. The required outcomes were altered to become less about understanding child development and more about managing teaching and learning, with a heavy focus on early literacy (including phonics) and numeracy. This fed into an increasingly confusing overlap with QTS (early years).
I started to work with a team training early years professionals in January 2007 and left in September 2013. By this time, it had become clear to me that the prospect of the creation of a graduate early years workforce, with a focus on child development and family liaison, had been a brief illusion.
And now, 11 years later, in early retirement, I listened in despair to a parliamentary debate relating to training early years practitioners that took place with no one in the room who had any idea that the EYPS was ever a flagship government project, let alone that there are currently over 4000 individuals in the population who hold the qualification.
The legitimate role of the expert: to advise and to warn
Michael Gove is famous for saying that the nation has “had enough of experts”. This attitude has proved to be a hostage to fortune in a number of fields. This is the story of just one that is frequently forgotten and sidelined: early years practice.
Perhaps, in the light of experience, and under ‘new management’, the Sunak government may come to rethink the current government’s disparaging attitude towards experts who raise questions about ill-advised government policies.
If so, perhaps the next time the government debates the administration of early years practice and the training of staff, they may think to put a few experts in the room who can advise them of previous lessons learned, and warn of dangers beyond the physically obvious that arise when, in the words of Carolyn Harris, MP for Swansea East, early years childcare is constructed “as some sort of luxury”.