‘So, minister, do you really think you could care for eight children at once?’

Childcare minister Liz Truss thinks kids in nurseries could thrive with fewer staff. One angry head in Manchester invited her to try out her plan in practice. This is from the Guardian…

At snack time, nine children aged two and three sit nicely and quietly around the tables munching potato cakes under the watchful eyes of their nursery staff. Five minutes later the peace has dissipated and it’s as if someone has set giant tennis balls bouncing madly around the room. Only Xavier is still at the table, which now needs a good wipe, Patryk is careering towards the door for his mum, who has just been buzzed in, Adam and Nico are clamouring to go into the garden and need help with their coats and hats, Isla is sobbing for her daddy and needs a cuddle, Alfie is bouncing on a cushion, Freddie badly wants a clap of admiration for his Lego tower, and two others need urgent attention in the toileting department.

Even as Patryk leaves for home and they are down to eight, the three staff have their work cut out attending to the children. “We could do with a few extra arms at times,” laughs Catherine Gaffey as she tries to coax a few of the tennis balls to sit down for a story. “It’s not so bad if it’s a quiet time and they are all sitting quietly, but when it’s like this …”

According to the Tory education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss, the eight children now in this pre-school class at the Village nursery in Trafford, Manchester, could be looked after by one person. Gaffey shudders at the thought.

“Well, if that was the way it was, then you’d get on with it. Of course, my job would be much harder, but it wouldn’t be fair on the children. Especially at this age, you’ve got a little one like Isla, who is needing a lot of help settling in still, and others who need to be helped to get to the toilet on time, it would be just impossible to give them the attention, and I’d feel rotten for them if that was the way it was. I don’t think parents would stand for it and I don’t think you’d get many new people coming into the job.”

Such is the frustration at Truss’s comments that Julie Lightley, owner of the nursery, wrote a letter to the Guardian last week inviting Truss to visit “to enable her to test her proposals for one member of staff looking after eight toddlers”. She wrote: “I can tell you for nothing that mums returning to work after maternity leave will not feel happy about leaving their child with one adult and seven other toddlers.”

Picking up her son from the Village nursery, teacher Hannah Goodall was adamant she would give up work and stay at home if there were fewer staff. “If the ratio increased to one to eight for two- to three-year-olds, I would withdraw my children from nursery.

“As a teacher with experience, I don’t believe that my child would get the care, attention and observations that he requires and deserves,” she said. “An increased ratio would without a doubt have a negative impact on the level of care and the child’s development.”

Adam’s mother, Carol Longden, was also horrified at the notion of a new childcare ratio. “I feel that one child potty training at home is stressful enough, so to increase the ratio by such a significant proportion would really not work.”

But Truss said the current rules on pre-school education, which stipulate that nursery workers can be responsible for no more than four toddlers at a time, were “restrictive”. She has suggested that the regulations should be overhauled to emulate the system in France, where young children are looked after in larger groups. French creches for under-threes often operate with fewer members of staff, who are better qualified and better paid than their British counterparts.

Truss said fewer, better-paid childminders would improve standards and bring down the cost for parents. “We need to move to a simpler, clearer system that prioritises quality and safety over excessive bureaucracy,” she said. “Our ratios put a cap on the salaries staff can be paid because of onerous requirements on numbers. If staff are being paid barely more than minimum wage, nurseries struggle to retain and recruit high-quality people.”

But nursery school owners including Lightley, who runs three others in the north-west of England, are appalled at the idea. She said: “Childcare is seen as low paid, low skills and low status, but there is a career pathway there up to degree level and we should be valuing qualified staff – but not at the expense of ratios. I came into this business because I wanted to see quality childcare provision. Here we want to have longstanding members of staff, so that children have stability and routine. They need to see the same staff day in and day out.”

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