This Insight was updated on 3.1.2023 to reflect the new childcare ratios. New childcare ratios in England came into force in September following a change in regulations. The Government announced an increase in staff to child ratios for two-year-olds in England from 1:4 to 1:5 in the March 2023 Budget following a consultation. This Insight explains the new childcare ratios in England, how they have changed and comparisons with other countries.

What are the new ratios?

The childcare ratio refers to the number of qualified staff necessary in an early years setting to the number of children.

The ratios for England differ depending on the age of the child and are set out in the Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework (paragraphs 3.28 to 3.44).

Changes that came into force on 4 September 2023 mean that:

  • the statutory minimum staff to child ratios in England for two-year-olds is now 1:5
  • childminders can care for more than three young children (the maximum) if they are the siblings of children they already care for or the childminder’s own child
  • “adequate supervision” while children are eating now means that children must be within sight and hearing of an adult

The Government announced the changes as part of a “wider package of investment” in its response to the consultation on 15 March.

During the consultation phase, the Government said the change to the ratio for two-year-olds could reduce childcare costs by up to £40 for a family paying £265 per week.

Some stakeholders raised concerns and questioned whether the changes will lead to savings for families. The Early Years Alliance, an early years membership organisation, labelled the plans “ludicrous, pointless and potentially dangerous”.

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the charity and membership group National Day Nurseries Association, welcomed the consultation but said “tinkering with ratios alone will not cut costs”. In a separate interview with the Guardian, she warned that, given the impact of the Covid pandemic, it was not the time to be giving children less support.

Alys Denby, the editor of CapX, a comment site owned by the right-wing think-tank Centre for Policy Studies, has argued for increasing the ratio. In a 2022 article for the New Statesman, she argued that without compromising safety.

How were the changes to childcare ratios introduced?

The changes are set out in The Early Years Foundation Stage (Learning and Development and Welfare Requirements) (Amendment) Regulations 2023, which came into force on the 4 September 2023.

What were the former childcare ratios?

The child to staff ratios for England differ depending on the age of the child and are set out in the EYFS Statutory Framework.

As shown in the table below, before new regulations came into force on 4 September 2023, the national minimum staff to child ratios in England were:

National mandatory minimum staff: child ratios before 4 September 2023

England

Age of Child Early years provider (other than childminders) 
Under 2 1:3
 2 1:4
3+ 1:8 or 1:13

Notes: Ratio for children aged three and over is 1:13 if led by a teacher
Providers must ensure staff have the “appropriate qualifications” to count in the ratios

Source: Department for Education (DfE), Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework, 3 September 2021, paras 3.28 to 3.44

The framework stipulated that childminders could care for up to six children under the age of eight. Of these six, up to three could be “young children”, and one could be under the age of one.

A child is considered a young child up until 1 September after their fifth birthday. Exceptions to the ratios, including the new ones, can be made in certain circumstances, such as when childminders are caring for sibling babies.

The ratio may change depending on the needs of the children. For example, providers must have arrangements for children with special educational needs and disabilities.

What are the childcare ratios in other countries?

Before announcing the consultation on changing the ratios, then Children’s Minister Will Quince visited the Netherlands, Sweden, France and Scotland to see how they regulate childcare.

Research published by the Department for Education in 2013

, based on a survey of 15 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, suggested that England was among countries with stricter rules on childcare ratios, as shown in the table below:

National mandatory childcare ratio for two-year-olds

Nurseries

England Netherlands France Ireland Denmark Germany Sweden
1:4 1:6 1:8 or 1:12 1:6 or 1:11 None None None

France: Ratios vary by provider type
Ireland: In sessional pre-school provision the child ratio is 1:11 for children aged 2.5 to 6 years.
Germany: There are no national mandatory child ratios; individual Länder (regions) are free to set their own regulations

Source: DfE, More great childcare: raising quality and giving parents more choice, 29 January 2013, p19; fieldwork carried out in 2012

The think tank, Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), also published a report on childcare ratios in 2016 (PDF). It found that ratios for two-year-olds ranged from four to five children per staff member in Germany, the UK and Finland to eight to 10 children in France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway and Portugal. Denmark, Spain and Sweden have no mandatory ratio.

Can the ratios be compared?

Some care should be taken when comparing mandatory childcare ratios in other countries. It is not, for example, always clear whether the ratio is referring to a teacher or total staff to child ratio. Additionally, countries may also approach childcare differently.

Different European approaches

Dr Sara Bonetti, director of early years at the Education Policy Institute, has said some ratios are higher in European countries but “their approaches to the early years can be very different”. For example, there may be a wider team of support staff in place who aren’t counted in ratios.

The IEA reports that Norway requires one staff member for every eight to 10 children aged two. However, a 2015 OECD report, Early Childhood Education and Care Policy Review: Norway (PDF) makes clear this ratio refers to teachers only and additional “untrained staff” will usually also be present.

Similarly, the UK campaign group Pregnant then Screwed has noted that in French early years settings, ancillary staff who take on tasks such as food preparation and nappy changing, are not included in the ratio.

The OECD’s Education at a Glance 2021 report indicates childcare ratios in England are relatively high when considering a teacher to child ratio, but much lower when including all staff. This reflects that England makes extensive use of non-teaching staff. The OECD report looks at average ratio in practice rather than those required by regulations.


About the author: Niamh Foley is a researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in childcare.

Image by: Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

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