Enabling Environments

“If ratios increase, the value of early years practitioners… will once again be undermined”

  • “If ratios increase, the value of early years practitioners… will once again be undermined”

We hear from award-winning childminder Katherine Cooling-Smith about building confidence as a practitioner, and how increasing ratios would affect her setting… 

I co-mind with my colleague Carrie from my home in Essex.  Our pedagogy is very much based on fostering a love of learning for our children through open-ended, natural play.

We base our curriculum around the seasons and our focus is on time spent outdoors connecting children to nature; nurturing their drive to explore and investigate the natural world around them. We believe in the principle that all children ‘can do’ given the opportunity, and so our practice has a real emphasis on building confidence, capability and independence within our children.

Our own confidence as early years providers comes from seeing the results of our practice first-hand. Watching our children develop from babies right through to school is such a privilege. 

Being able to bridge gaps in development and knowing that we’ve done absolutely all we can to meet each child’s individual needs, to support our families, and to offer them a huge array of opportunities that broaden their experiences is something very special. We are giving them the confidence they need to make that transition to school seamlessly.

Confidence also comes from knowing that we are trusted in our practice to develop our own curriculums, and that approach to pre-school learning has come round full circle. We are able to move away from a formal adult-directed, school-like ethos for our under-fives, and are now once again looking at development in a holistic light, championing child-led learning through play with a focus on mental wellbeing.

Increasing ratios

The recent proposal to increase ratios to bring down the individual cost per child is a big concern. If ratios increase, the value of early years practitioners as professional educators will once again be undermined. 

The expectation of prospective parents will be that if we can offer those ratios, and lower our individual rates, we should.

However, for me, the increase would only be viable in meeting the children’s basic care needs. It doesn’t consider the impact it would have on our ability to offer the high-quality opportunities for learning and development that we strive for, and that we know every single child deserves.

Another concern for me, specifically as a childminder, is that we find ourselves constantly fighting for a better understanding of our role within the early years.
Parents often believe we are less qualified than nursery practitioners, that we don’t educate or socialise the children, and that we aren’t regulated to the same standards. 

Many of us work alone, or with a handful of assistants, and therefore we know our limits with regards to how many children we can physically offer high-quality provision to at any one time. 

Quite simply, I won’t be increasing ratios. I have often worked with a slightly larger group of children due to continuity of care when I have felt comfortable to do so, and I fully understand the changes needed within my practice to be able to do that effectively. 

I know it wouldn’t be possible for me to focus my attention on the children; to plan and extend learning right there and then, to spot those teachable moments and wonderful opportunities for sustained shared thinking, to keep our environment calm and focussed, and to maintain the enthusiasm and motivation needed to drive this if I was overstretched.

We spend a lot of our time away from the setting and it wouldn’t be physically possible for me to safely take a larger group of under-fives out without hiring an assistant. I’m not willing to compromise the opportunities for my children, or more importantly their safety.

Change is needed

Fundamentally, the structure of the economy is such that both parents now need to work to meet the rising cost of living. Childcare is now an integral part of that economy and must be supported more effectively. 

It needs to be a balance. Nurseries and childminders are closing in vast numbers, and so for those in the early years to function effectively and to keep their doors open, we need to look at why this is happening.

I was chatting with Samantha Hearth, a director of Rutland Early Years Agency Ltd, and we both agreed that one of the most effective changes the government could make is to simply alter the terminology around funding. 

By changing ‘Free Childcare’ to ‘Funded Childcare’, it would enable parents to have a better understanding of the shortfall that we face in facilitating funded spaces, and it would enable early years settings to charge the difference between our normal daily rate, and the funded rate we are paid by our local authorities.

I’d also like to see a change in the identity of childminders and nursery staff. Our roles have evolved significantly over the last five to 10 years, with changes to the EYFS now including terminology such as; ‘education’, ‘teaching’, and ‘curriculum’. 

I believe we should be given a title that better reflects this, such as early years practitioner, or early years educator. Simple changes such as these would emphasise the real value of our roles and would in turn build confidence in the eyes of our parents.

Katherine Cooling-Smith is an award-winning childminder. She runs Kayte’s House Childcare and Early Years from her home in Essex, with her colleague Carrie.