The debate on early years childcare: Staff-child ratios was opened by Catherine McKinnell MP.

The petition says:

The Government should not reduce the existing adult-child childcare ratios as has been suggested. There are surely better ways to reduce the cost of living – potentially endangering children in trusted care is not how it should be done.

Government response

The Government responded to the petition on 17 May 2022, and said they “will consult in the summer on moving to the Scottish ratios for two-year-olds, from a ratio of 1:4 to 1:5… [and] will engage fully with the sector and parents/carers on this proposed change”.

Since this debate, the Government has published new regulations which will change the staff to child ratio in early years settings, which came into force on 4 September 2023 (for more information, see the last section).


What did the Government consult on?

The Government has published a consultation on changing childcare ratios in England, proposing to “improve the cost, choice and availability of childcare.” The consultation ran from the 4 July to 16 September 2022.

The Department for Education’s (DfE) consultation was seeking 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.

Thrive Childcare and Education CEO, Cary Rankin, has said the Government should focus on funding rather than ratios: 

The Government in my view are focusing on the wrong thing – ratios – rather than the funding, and the list that allows workers to come and work in the UK. One of the biggest issues is recruitment, and the ability to staff our nurseries. Ratios is taking away the importance of funding and recruitment

In response to a parliamentary question on 25 October 2022 (67133), the Government said it would respond to the consultation “in due course”:

The consultation on ‘Childcare: regulatory changes’ closed on 16 September, and the department will respond in due course. Responses from this consultation will help to build the evidence base, including understanding more around the potential effect of safeguarding in the event that department guidelines are changed.

What were the childcare ratios?

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

In its response to the consultation, among other things, the Government has changed childcare ratios for two-year olds (see below). Before the new regulations came into force on 4 September 2023, the national minimum staff to child ratios in England were:

  • One adult for every three children under two years olds;
  • One adult for every four children aged two;
  • One adult for every eight children aged three and over (the ratio is 1:13 if led by a teacher).

The framework stipulated childminders could 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).

Childcare ratios in other countries?

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

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:

National mandatory childcare ratio for two-year-olds

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. As the Government stated in the consultation “like-for-like comparisons must be treated with caution due to very different childcare systems”. 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.


On page 15 of the consultation, the Government said the changes to the ratio “would align the English system to that of Scotland” (PDF):

The Scottish system has similar ratios to England, but these differ for children aged 2. Whilst in England our ratio is 1:4 (one adult to four children), Scotland applies ratios of 1:5 (one adult to five children). We have also considered other international examples. While like-for-like comparisons must be treated with caution due to very different childcare systems, England’s statutory minimum staff:child ratios for 2-year-olds are among the highest in Europe.

We are proposing to move to the Scottish ratios for 2-year-olds on the basis that Scotland has a similar childcare system to England, we have no evidence to suggest that the Scottish model is unsafe, and evidence shows high parental satisfaction rates.

It has been noted there are some differences with the childcare system in Scotland: The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) national policy manager for Scotland, Jane Malcolm, has said a key difference is “all staff are highly qualified in Scotland and the monitoring of practice differs”. She also highlighted the requirement for all lead practitioners in Scottish childcare settings to be qualified to degree level, and staff at entry level must have a Scottish Qualifications Authority qualification “that is the equivalent to Level 2 NVQ in England”.

How did the Government respond to the consultation?

The Government published its response to the consultation on 15 March 2023. It announced, as part of “a wider package of investment”, that the three propsals set out in the consultation would be taken forward.

The changes are set out in The Early Years Foundation Stage (Learning and Development and Welfare Requirements) (Amendment) Regulations 2023 (SI 2023/780), which came into force on the 4 September 2023. They explain the EYFS Framework will be updated to include:

  • a change to the current statutory minimum staff:child ratios in England for 2-year-olds from 1:4 to 1:5;

  • clarifying that childminders can care for more than the specified maximum of three young children if they are caring for siblings of children they already care for, or if the childminder is caring for their own child;

  • clarifying that “adequate supervision” while children are eating means that children must be within sight and hearing of an adult.

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