Childcare Ratios; What are they & how do they differ by age?

What are childcare ratios in early learning services and why are they important? Ratios differ by age to ensure a safe, well supervised environment.

Introduction to Childcare Ratios

Across Australia, the National Quality Standards were developed to ensure quality when it comes to education and care services. The National Quality Standards are guided by the National Law and Regulations and these set out the legal requirements for approved providers that must be met to remain compliant. One aspect of these regulations involves staff to child ratios and this is a particularly important factor for achieving a quality service. But what are childcare ratios and why are they so important? Below we explore this one aspect of the National Law and Regulations for education and care services.

Childcare ratios
Ratios differ by age as well as state to state in Australia.


What are Childcare ratios?

The staff to child ratio requirements for education and care services are defined within the National Quality Framework (NQF). The purpose of the ratios are to ensure that children are educated and cared for within an environment that is safe, but is also optimal for learning. The correct ratio must be legally maintained by each service at all times – so it is vital that each service has a solid understanding of what these ratios are.

To be counted within the ratios, educators must be directly working with children by being physically present and involved in the education and care setting. The educator to child ratio varies depending on the ages of children and the type of service that is offering the care.

For family day care services, a 1:7 ratio is the requirement in all states. Within this ratio, a family day care educator can have a maximum of four children under preschool age and the educator’s own children must be included within the ratio if they are under 13 years of age.

In centre-based care services, ratios are calculated across the whole service, rather than by each individual room. This allows for flexibility for educators to move between rooms as required. You can find detailed information about educator to child ratios on the Australian Children’s Education and Care Quality Authority website here: Educator to child ratios | ACECQA.

Childcare ratios
Family day care services have a ratio of 1:7 across all of Australia


How do ratios differ by age group?

Younger babies and toddlers require much more contact and care from an educator and therefore the ratio for younger children is much lower. Babies and toddlers require nappy changes, they need to be fed and they have a higher need for being held and comforted. As children become older, they become more independent. By the time a child is at preschool, they are usually able to engage in more self-care tasks, including toileting and feeding themselves and therefore a higher educator to child ratio is sufficient.

Childcare ratios
Ratio requirements are higher for babies and toddlers due to their higher care needs such as feeding, nappy change and other care activities

Do ratios differ from state to state?

Whilst the family day care ratios remain consistent across Australia, there are a few differences in the required ratios for centre-based services across the different states and territories. These differences are outlined in the table below:

Age of childrenLegal educator to child ratioState or territory
Birth to 24 months1:4All states and territories
Over 24 months and less than 36 months1:5All states and territories except Victoria
 1:4Victoria
36 months up to and including preschool age1:11ACT, NT, QLD, SA, VIC
 1:10NSW, WA
 1:10 OR 2:25 for a preschool programTAS
Over Preschool age1:15NT, QLD, SA, TAS, VIC, NSW
 1:11ACT
 1:13 (or 1:10 if kindergarten children are in attendance)WA

What happens to ratios if different aged children are mixed together?

In circumstances where services are educating and caring for children in mixed-age groupings, they are able to calculate the educator to child ratios under the requirements of regulation 123 (https://legislation.nsw.gov.au/view/html/inforce/current/sl-2011-0653#ch.4-pt.4.4-div.3). This will allow older children to be considered as part of the ratios for younger children. In determining this, it is important to understand that adequate supervision must be maintained at all times. The following fact sheet provides comprehensive information about national mixed age ratios for centre-based services. Issue 2 – Unpacking the Educator-to-child ratios and adequate supervision requirements (nsw.gov.au)

Childcare ratios
When different aged children are mixed, you must still adhere to the ratios for the youngest children present, essentially moving older children into gaps of ratios for younger ones.

Why do we have staff child ratios in childcare?

An appropriate staff to child ratio is required to ensure that each child is given the individual care and attention that they need to effectively grow, develop and learn. Whilst it might seem obvious that a certain number of staff are needed to effectively supervise and ensure the safety of children, in Australia the focus is also on early learning. Any kind of approved education and care service is required to implement a quality educational program and this can only happen with appropriate staff to child ratios. Additionally, a certain number of qualified educators are also required to develop and embed a quality learning program for all children in their care.

Can a volunteer be counted in childcare ratios?

Under the Education and Care Services National Regulations, a volunteer or student who is completing a practicum placement, and who either holds or is actively working towards an approved certificate III qualification, can be counted in the centre ratios. The student or volunteer must of course agree to this, and the RTO where they are undertaking their study must also be aware of this. Whilst this is occurring, the approved provider and nominated supervisor must ensure that children are adequately supervised at all times by considering the educator’s experience, skills and knowledge.

Childcare ratios
Fees for children in childcare services will often be influenced by ratio requirements based on age. That is, higher fees for younger children.

Do ratios influence childcare fees?

In most centre-based care settings, childcare fees are set in line with the legal staff to child ratios. As a business, the organisation needs to be profitable, so fees are determined at a rate that will comfortably cover staffing and other running costs whilst allowing the business to be viable. Some child care centres are run by not-for-profit organisations which means their fees can at times be a bit less than private child care providers.  In some centres, such as specialised Montessori preschools, a staff to child ratio may be higher than the legal requirement as these centres have a very strong focus on adult to child interactions. For example, in some cases the legal ratio for a preschool program might be 1:10, but the centre chooses to implement a ratio of 1:5 to raise the quality of their learning program. This often means that these centres are much more expensive for parents, as those added staffing costs must be covered within the fees. You will also usually find that childcare centres will have a higher fee for younger age groups (0-3’s) compared to preschool aged children due to the fact that the ratio requirements for younger children are higher.

Is it against the law to breach childcare ratios?

The Education and Care Services National Regulations are indeed law. Any breach of the regulations, including not meeting appropriate staff to child ratios, is considered an offence. Business owners and organisations will be at risk of prosecution if they are found to be not maintaining the legal ratios for their state or territory. 

Do lower childcare ratios mean better quality care and education?

Whilst lower ratios certainly allow greater opportunities for higher quality education and care, it doesn’t automatically make services better. Even a 1:1 ratio could potentially be a low-quality service if the educators are disengaged and not providing a high-quality program. In order to ensure quality, all of the National Quality Standards must be rated as at least ‘meeting’. Whilst a higher ratio can certainly make an education and care program run more smoothly, it still requires dedicated and skilled educators who know how to build relationships and effectively scaffold children’s learning. Starting Blocks provides some useful information surrounding what quality looks like in childcare here: Quality in Child Care I Starting Blocks.

Summary of Childcare ratios

Maintaining appropriate childcare ratios in early childhood settings is certainly important – but further to this it is also a legal requirement. Child care services are no longer viewed as ‘babysitting’ services and educators are no longer seen as ‘child minders’. The requirements for educator qualifications and staff child ratios have been put into place so that children attending education and care services can be safe and well supervised whilst thriving under the provision of a quality learning program.

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