Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of offering only “pathetic” changes to childcare in a bid to bring down costs for parents and boost availability.
A consultation will look at increasing the number of children that can be looked after by each staff member – with proposals to change staff-to-child ratios from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds.
The government had estimated that the changes could potentially save parents £40 a month, based on a family paying £265 a week for a child under two.
But junior minister Will Quince has admitted the ratio change is “not going to significantly change costs” for parents.
“The ratio change in itself is no silver bullet or panacea or magic bullet, it is not going to significantly change costs, because what we don’t expect is settings to routinely or religiously go to one to five,” the children and families minister told Sky News.
Ministers say the plan to change staff-to-child ratios will give providers more flexibility in how they run their businesses while maintaining safety and quality of care.
The government has said this could “potentially” and “eventually” reduce the cost of this form of childcare by up to 15 per cent, if providers adopt the changes and pass all the savings on to parents.
But the Early Years Alliance – the largest early years membership organisation in England has criticised the plan – saying it was “beyond frustrating that the government is wasting its time consulting on relaxing ratios”.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the charity, said the government should admit “that if we want to have affordable, quality, sustainable care … we need to invest substantially more into the sector than we are doing at the moment”.
Early Years Alliance research shows that the proposal to relax ratios for two-year-olds in nurseries and pre-schools from 1:4 to 1:5 would “fail to lower the cost” as well as driving down quality and worsen the “catastrophic recruitment and retention crisis”.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady also said the government proposals “won’t help”, saying: “Cutting staffing ratios will just put more pressure on underpaid and undervalued childcare workers.”
The union leader added: “Instead of making policy on the hoof, ministers should listen to childcare workers. It’s time for a proper funding settlement for childcare.”
Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, described the announcement as “pathetic” and said it “fails to deliver the ambition families need to tackle spiralling childcare costs”.
She added: “Tweaking ratios is not the answer parents want and not the answer children need. The vast majority of providers have made clear this would make no difference to costs for parents.”
The government said it will also support more people to become childminders, streamline the Ofsted registration process for providers and encourage the growth of Childminder Agencies.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said the proposed reforms “prove again that this government is on the side of working families”.
The cabinet minister said he was “determined” to support the child care sector “by giving them greater flexibility in how they run their services”.
Defending the plans on Monday, Mr Quince argued that countries with cheaper childcare provision pay more in tax.
“We currently invest around £4bn to £5bn a year on childcare and early years’ education… there are other countries – France, Sweden the Netherlands– who do put far more money into early years’ education,” the junior minister said.
The minister also said the government was running a campaign to raise awareness that families are entitled to up to £2,000 per year towards childcare costs tax-free, while those on Universal Credit could recover 85 percent of their childcare costs from government funding.