The government has announced plans to review how childcare settings work in a bid to support more parents back to work.
Under consultation is a plan to change staff-to-child ratios from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds, meaning providers can look after more children in this age bracket.
The government claims this could reduce the cost of childcare by up to 15%, or £40 a week for a family with a two-year-old in a childcare setting.
But unions and gender equality groups claim the changes are “misguided” and will only stretch childcare workers to the limit, rather than help parents.
The Women’s Budget Group, a network of academics, policy expert and campaigners, said the plans “would not solve the childcare emergency”, citing a survey from campaign group Pregnant The Screwed showing that 85% of working parents do not support relaxing staff-to-child ratios.
In addition to the ratio changes, the government said it will also support more people to become childminders by reducing the upfront costs of becoming one and enabling them to expand the services they offer to a greater range of locations.
The average cost of sending a two-year-old to nursery for a week is £265 in England, the Department for Education said, compared with £236 for a childminder.
The high cost of childcare is often cited as the main reason parents – in particular women – are unable to return to work. In the current labour market, incentivising those outside the labour market to return has been suggested as one approach to tackling skills shortages.
According to a 2021 survey by the Early Years Alliance, difficulty accessing childcare has forced one in six parents to reduce their working hours.
The TUC accused the government of making up childcare policy “on the hoof”.
General secretary Frances O’Grady said: “High quality affordable childcare should be available for all. But too many parents are spending a massive slice of their pay packets on rising childcare costs, while their wages stagnate.
“These proposals won’t help. Cutting staffing ratios will just put more pressure on underpaid and undervalued childcare workers.”
“It’s time for a proper funding settlement for childcare that delivers high quality care, keeps the costs down for families and guarantees decent pay and conditions for workers.”
The TUC estimates that the cost of childcare for parents with very young children has increased by more than £2,000 a year since 2010. One in three parents spends more than a third of their wages on childcare costs, its recent survey found.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said: “Every child deserves a great start in life and that means giving families the support they need.
“I’m hugely grateful to the thousands of dedicated early years professionals who provide daily care and education to our youngest children, which is why I am determined to support them by giving them greater flexibility in how they run their services.
“This in turn will support thousands of families across the country, helping to develop children’s skills while also supporting parents into work.”
The government will also launch a new advertising campaign aimed at increasing working parents’ awareness of their entitlements, such as their free 15 to 30 hours per week for three- to four-year-olds and Tax-Free Childcare, the scheme that replaced employer childcare vouchers.