The Government has published a consultation on changing childcare ratios in England, proposing to “improve the cost, choice and availability of childcare.”

This Insight explains the current childcare ratios in England, and how these compare to other countries.

What is the Government consulting on?

The Department for Education’s (DfE) consultation, which opened on 4 July, seeks views on: 

  • Changing the mandatory staff to child ratio for two-year olds in early years settings from 1:4 to 1:5;
  • Increasing flexibility for childminders, so they can care for more than the maximum of three children under the age of five “if they are caring for siblings of children they already care for, or if the childminder is caring for their own baby or child”; and
  • Making the Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework (EYFS) explicit that “adequate supervision” means children “must be in sight and hearing of an adult” while they are eating or drinking.

The Government says 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 have raised concerns and question whether the changes will lead to savings for families. The Early Years Alliance, for example, labelled the plans “ludicrous, pointless and potentially dangerous”. Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, welcomed the consultation but said “tinkering with ratios alone will not cut costs”. She also warned, given the impact of the Covid pandemic, it was not the time to be giving children less support.

However, others have argued other countries have less stringent requirements without compromising safety.

The consultation is open until 16 September 2022.

What are the current childcare ratios?

The childcare ratio refers to the number of qualified staff necessary in an early years setting to the number of children. The current regulations concerning child to staff ratios in England are in the EYFS Statutory Framework (paras 3.28 to 3.44).

As the table below shows, the required ratios differ depending on the age of the child:

The ratio is one staff member to three children under the age of two, 1:4 for two-year olds, and 1:8 for children over three (the ratio for three-year-olds can increase to 1:13 if led by a teacher).

Source: DfE, Early Years Foundation Stage Statutory Framework, 3 September 2021, paras 3.28 to 3.44.

The framework stipulates childminders can care for up to six children under the age of eight. Of these six, up to three may be “young children”, and one can be under the age of one. A child is classified as a young child up until 1st September following their fifth birthday. Exceptions to these ratios can be made in certain circumstances, such as when childminders are caring for sibling babies.

The ratio may also change depending on the needs of the child or children in the setting. For example, providers must have arrangements for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

What are the childcare ratios in other countries?

Children’s Minister, Will Quince, visited the Netherlands, Sweden, France and Scotland to see how they regulate childcare, before announcing the consultation.

Research published by the DfE in 2013, based on a bespoke survey of 15 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, suggested England was among countries with stricter rules on childcare ratios:

The DfE found national mandatory childcare ratios for two-year-olds is 1:4 in England, 1:6 in the Netherlands, for France is 1:8 or 1:12 (depending on provider type) and for Ireland is 1:6 (or 1:11 if over 2.5 years old and in sessional pre-school provision). For Denmark, Germany and Sweden there was no mandatory ratio.

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). The IEA found 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 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 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 all staff are included. This reflects that England makes extensive use of non-teaching staff. It should be noted that 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.