Controversial plans by ministers to allow childminders and nursery workers to look after greater numbers of children will lead to a "deterioration" in the quality of their care and will not help parents reduce their costs, an official report by the Government's own advisers has warned.
The report, which has not been published by Michael Gove's Department for Education despite being handed over to officials in November, directly undermines proposals by Elizabeth Truss, the Children's minister, to change adult-to-child ratios because she claims it would help reduce bureaucracy and the financial burden on parents.
Ms Truss is looking at whether Britain should follow the French system whereby groups of 12 toddlers under the age of three can be looked after by one staff member, with even larger numbers of three- to four-year-olds in Ecoles Maternelles. She has caused consternation among nursery staff by saying ratios in the UK are "onerous".
Under current British rules, there must be one member of nursery staff for every eight children over the age of three. There must be one adult for every four two- to three-year-olds, and one for every three children under the age of two. For childminders, ratios are even smaller, with one adult allowed to look after a maximum of three under-fives.
The report, leaked to The Independent on Sunday, analyses comparative costs and ratios of childcare in industrialised countries and was written by Professor Helen Penn and Professor Eva Lloyd last year. It was handed over in November but has not yet been released by ministers, fuelling suspicion that it is being suppressed by Mr Gove because it conflicts with the Government's plans.
The authors cite the example of the Netherlands, where the government deregulated childcare in 2005, allowing more children to be looked after by nursery staff and childminders. The changes led to "deteroriating childcare quality", the report says, and the Dutch government reversed the move last year.
After the 2005 change, there was a "significant worsening of the quality of the physical environment as well as a much-impaired responsiveness in staff/child interactions". There were also "increased pressures on staff due to the industry's rapid growth, an insufficient focus in childcare training".
It adds that staff-to-child ratios "are generally assumed to be key indicators of quality … Deregulation in the UK would lead to a reduction in quality".
The report adds: "We can find no evidence that the high costs of childcare in the UK occur because the UK is over-regulated. In comparison with other countries, the UK is not heavily regulated."
The Government is already under fire over its plans to give parents a £2,000 tax allowance to help with childcare costs. After the policy was trailed by Downing Street last week as part of the coalition's mid-term review, it emerged it has been blocked by George Osborne, who insists it must be targeted at a smaller number of families. The policy was supposed to counter criticism over the cutting of child benefit to higher earners.
Ms Truss is a keen proponent of deregulation and has lauded the Dutch childcare system in the past, but last week praised the French model. Writing on a blog for conservativehome.com, the minister said: "There is clearly something wrong with a system where the costs both to Government and to parents are high, yet the people employed to look after and educate children are poorly paid.
"It is no coincidence that we have the most restrictive adult-child ratios for young children of comparable European countries as well as the lowest staff salaries. 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."
Researchers at the National Childminding As- sociation found that 63 per cent of childminders thought that if ratios were increased the safety of children in their care would be compromised, while 81 per cent said they would not charge parents less per hour.
Professor Lloyd, who works with Professor Penn at the International Centre for the Study of the Mixed Economy of Childcare at the University of East London, urged the Government to publish evidence that changing ratios would reduce costs.
She added: "We have very little evidence that changing ratios would make a huge difference to parental cost. We have every reason to believe that it results in a reduction in quality. The Government needs to go back to the drawing board and carry out root-and-branch reform of the system."
A Department for Education source said the report "will be published in due course".
The shadow Education Secretary Stephen Twigg said: "Even the Government's own advisers are warning that the plans could threaten the quality of childcare and won't cut costs to parents.
"David Cameron has created a childcare crisis with higher costs, fewer places and less support through tax credits. Change is needed urgently, but it must be change that drives down costs for hard-pressed families and maintains quality."
In a separate report, which will be released next week by Findababysitter.com, parents increasingly feel let down by the Government's lack of support when it comes to childcare. More than half of parents who need to find someone to look after their child while they work claim the Government is not doing enough to support them. In a poll of 1,001 parents, 55 per cent complained that they struggled to do so.
Additional reporting by Rachael Day
Case study: 'There are not enough activities on offer. They need more carers when they are younger'
Esther Fleurbaay, 40, is a child physiotherapist from Ermelo, in The Netherlands. She has two children; daughter, Sterre, eight, and a five-year-old son, Florian.
"When my children went to the local childcare centre there were 15 children to two carers. That's a lot. They need more carers and attention when they are younger.
"My children went to the day-care centre when they were three months old. We were satisfied with the care in their younger years, but the system has changed as they got older. There are not enough carers and not enough activities on offer. The children can paint or draw, but there is little physical recreation such as sport or dancing... this January, things are going to get worse with a ratio of four babies per carer."