Nurseries and childminders will be allowed to look after more children, the government says, under plans that have been criticised by the opposition for lowering standards.

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Education Minister Liz Truss outlined the proposed changes this morning at Policy Exchange, the right-of-centre think tank, to coincide with a report on standards of childcare.

The report found that the vocabulary development of children from the wealthiest families is 16 months ahead of those from the poorest families, and found large differences between the standards of childcare in the wealthiest and poorest parts of the country.

Under the plans, childcare staff will be able to take care of six two-year-olds rather than four, while the ratios for children under two will increase from three to four.

We are at the bottom of the league table of our near neighbours. Liz Truss, education minister

Ms Truss said the increased number of children per worker will give nurseries the "headroom to pay higher salaries", thus increasing standards. She said England is at the bottom of the scale compared to its European neighbours in relation to salaries for childcare workers.

Graphic: how do the UK's working mother and childcare levels compare to France and Germany? (picture: Ciaran Hughes)

Bottom of the league

"We have learned from other countries that deliver better-value and better-quality childcare," she said. "We have looked across Europe and beyond. The aim is not to replicate another country's approach but to learn from and apply best practice.

"I have been particularly struck by the high status and trust afforded to childcare professionals in continental Europe. In particular, I am impressed by much of what happens in France.

Watering down quality is the wrong way to try to deal with the problem they've caused. Stephen Twigg, shadow education secretary

"The well-established system of ecoles maternelles is being expanded to offer spaces for more two-year-olds while a mixture of creche and childminder provision is in high demand for younger children.

"Many French families put down their child's name for a French creche as soon as they discover they are pregnant. Nursery workers are paid around £16,000, compared to about £13,000 here.

"In return, candidates are expected to have higher qualifications. We are at the bottom of the league table of our near neighbours."

The Policy Exchange report, Quality Childcare, found that in areas such as Wokingham and Windsor, 19 per cent and 15 per cent respectively of childcare facilities were judged as "outstanding" by Ofsted. Newham, in London, had just 3 per cent of facilities judged to be "outstanding". Manchester, Tower Hamlets and Hackney had just 6 per cent of child care facilities judged as outstanding.

It will not reduce costs and instead risks reducing the quality of care - Frances O'Grady, TUC general secretary

The report also said that nearly half of people earning less than £20,000 consider cost an important factor when choosing childcare.

'Watering down'

However, the plans have been criticised as "watering down quality".

Shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg said the plans threatened child safety and would not reduce costs. "This government has created an affordability crisis by cutting support and pushing up costs for parent.

"Watering down quality is the wrong way to try to deal with the problem they've caused. Experts are warning this could threaten child safety and won't reduce costs. Parents will be worried.

"With a £1,700 toddler tax for families with two children, and 401 fewer children's centres, parents are being locked into inflation-busting cost rises while the quality of childcare is undermined."

A child holds up his fingers in a nursery (picture: Getty)

Labour also quoted Professor Eva Lloyd of the University of East London, who has advised Liz Truss on childcare, as saying: "The ratio relaxation is unlikely to reduce childcare costs, but may well drive down childcare quality."

TUC general secretary Frances O'Grady also criticised cuts in government support for parents. She said: "Childcare in this country is far too expensive, fails to fit around people's working lives, and is undervalued as a profession.

"By cutting tax credits, freezing child benefit, and withdrawing it for higher earners, the government has made childcare even more unaffordable. The closure of hundreds of Sure Start centres, despite promising to protect them, has also made it harder to access affordable places.

"But deregulating childcare is not the solution. It will not reduce costs and instead risks reducing the quality of care. We need significant investment in childcare and wide-reaching reform. Today's announcement fails on both grounds and will not be welcomed by parents."