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Nursery Ratios and Babies under 12m in Nursery

Nursery Ratios and Babies under 12m in Nursery

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Published by Nathan Archer
briefing paper
briefing paper

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Nathan Archer on Jan 28, 2013
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Nursery Ratios and Babies under 12m in Nursery
From Peter Elfer (University of Roehampton) and Jools Page (University of Sheffield)
(NB: The aim here is to be ‘brief’ and to focus on the key points of concern / ev 
idence in relation to under one and the possibility of government recommending an increase in the numbers of babies from three to four that each practitioner should be responsible for ; we are of course aware that the ratios issue is complex, interrelated and affects the whole early years phase)
Ratios, cost and quality
The very high cost of nursery for parents, especially for babies, where ratios arehighest, is well known. It is understandable that Ministers are concerned to reducecosts to parents. Nevertheless the media coverage suggesting a reduction of ratiosfor babies from 1:3 to 1:4 has raised real alarm.This alarm has been expressed by parents (Nursery World and MumsNet),individual professionals and researchers (Guardian), providers (NDNA, NW andGuardian) and organistions (Association of Infant Mental Health; NSPCC; Association of Child Psychotherapists; What about the Children?).The depth of concern is rooted in what is already well known about the emotionaland physical demands of working with babies and the convergence of developmentalpsychology and neuroscience on the vital importance of attuned, sensitive andconsistent early interactions).
The evidence
large cohort research
Determinants of quality in nursery are multiple but generally divided into two groups,structural (ratios, group size, space and qualifications) and dynamic (curriculum,interactions, leadership and ethos). Reviews agree that:...the strongest and most consistent predictor of observed positive caregivingin group-based early childhood settings was the adult:child ratio...caregiversprovided more sensitive, frequent and positive care when they wereresponsible for fewer children ...the optimum ratio for under two year-olds ineducation and care settings was consistently stated as 1:3 (Dalli et al;2011:103)
This evidence replicates earlier work (Pessanah et al 2007; Melhuish 2004).
The evidence
case study research
Ratios matter so much because whilst they do not guarantee quality (whichof course depends on what the staff do) it is a pre-condition of it. No matter how wellqualified, hard working, committed a staff member is, she can only work well with asmall number of children. Those over one are beginning to have the confidence andresilience to manage and thrive in small groups. But under ones rely primarily onindividual attention
giving this concurrently to four babies is not possible. Giving it
consecutively is exhausting and fragmenting. The babies inevitably experience therepeated availability and then withdrawal of attention.Case study work by Elfer (2006; 2007; 2012) and Page and Elfer (forthcoming)shows the complexity of meeting the emotional demands of babies and youngchildren in nursery. The work of Powell and Goouch portrays a pretty desperatescenario in the baby rooms of nurseries in one local authority. They call for:Recognition that the, predominantly, young women in baby rooms areundertaking highly responsible and skilful roles that demand constantphysical, emotional and intellectual labour (2012, p6). An Austrian study (Datler et al 2010) of a Viennese nursery where the ratios aresimilar to those in France (1:5-1:8) show the inability of a 15 month old to get anyindividual attention from anyone during his nursery day.
The positive development of Early Years Policy
EYP has developed significantly since 1945 when the combined Ministries of Education and Health advised that mothers of children under two should not go outto work. That position in official guidance has reversed. Further, there have beensustained improvements to both structural and dynamic quality factors introduced byGovernments of both main parties.
The integration of education and social services as combined or children’s centres
with broad intakes of children helped move practice away from the notorious patternsof care (where children had only fleeting interactions with many different members of 
staff coming and going, known as ‘multiple indiscriminate care’).
The current revised EYFS makes the provision of opportunities for attachment for babies in nursery a statutory duty. The aim is that each baby has the chance of consistent individual attention from mainly one or two key members of staff. Thatduty is much more difficult to fulfil if a member of staff has too many babies to carefor. She cannot reliably offer attachments to four (and more if a colleague is off sickeven if that person is replaced by agency staff).
National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) Guidance
Recent NICE guidance (only issued in October 2012) has also emphasised theimportance of attention to emotional well-being in early years provision:Managers and providers of early education and childcare services should ensureall vulnerable children can benefit from high quality services which aim toenhance their social and emotional wellbeing and build their capacity to learn.Services should:
promote the development of positive, interactive relationships betweenstaff and children
ensure individual staff get to know, and develop an understanding of,particular 
children's needs (continuity of care is particularly important for younger children)
focus on social and emotional, as well as educational, development.It seems clear that it will be very difficult for an individual member of staff or child-minder to implement this guidance with four babies.
The French system
The ‘creche
collectives’ (infant
-toddler centres) taking infants from 2months has aratio of 1:5 for babies and 1:8 for toddlers. It has been claimed that this provides atleast as good as, and sometimes better care, than in English nurseries with their higher ratios. Yet standards of care in France have caused controversy:
…young children are often cared for by a rotating cast of characters and
institutions within the same day. This is particularly true when both parentshave non-standard work schedules; when the parent is living alone; or whenthere is only one child (Bresse cited in Fagnini and Math 2011, p9).International comparisons have of course to be made with great care. There aresignificant differences of policy, workforce conditions and public expectation / need.It is dangerous to compare single factors. Nevertheless, the warnings are there. ry
The most vulnerable families are least likely to access effective nurseries
Making nurseries cheaper will not help the most vulnerable families, because thesefamilies are the ones most able to benefit from high quality (requiring at least 1:3ratios) nurseries :Expanding high-quality centre-based care to those children (from mostvulnerable socio-economic groups) is likely to help them catch up with their peers and thus to level the playing field (Felfe and Lalive 2012, p33)
Public opinion
Lastly, nursery provision per se has always caused anxiety in England with media
debating whether ‘nurseries are bad for babies’ and of course accounts of abuse.
Taking account of media sensationalism, there is still considerable underlyinganxiety although nurseries seem widely accepted as part of modern life, enablinggreater access to equality of opportunity for women and making work and family lifemanageable.Yet one does not need to turn to research to raise alarm about the idea of one adultlooking after four babies.
Main References
Dalli, C; White, J; Rochel, J; Duhn, I (undated) Quality early childhood education for under-two-year-olds: What should it look like? A literature review. Victoria Universityof Wellington.

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