Oliver Steeper’s grieving parents condemn child ratio plans

There are moments when Zoe and Lewis Steeper just look at each other and no words are necessary as the tears start streaming down their faces.

The couple faced every parent’s worst nightmare when their nine-month-old son Oliver choked while eating at nursery and died in hospital days later.

The Steepers believe trying to cut childcare costs by increasing the number of children every adult looks after will put youngsters at risk and is not the answer to resolving the childcare costs crisis.

After hearing about Government proposals suggesting an increase in adult-to-child ratios, they launched a petition against plans to reduce adult supervision in early-years childcare. It has amassed more than 109,000 signatures of support and the issue will be debated in Parliament on Monday afternoon.

Lewis, who lives in Ashford, Kent, tells I: “One of the biggest factors we’re faced with is that in Government, the people making these policies will never put their own children into mainstream childcare.

“They have very little understanding of how these things actually work because most of them are wealthier and their own children are usually with nannies or au pairs.

“However, average people, the working class, have to adhere to these policies. It’s totally unfair.”

‘Oliver was just such a cheeky, happy little boy all the time and he seemed like from the moment he first laughed, he just didn’t stop.’ (Photo: Lewis Steeper)

He added: “We don’t believe lowering the adult-to-child ratios will help to cure the cost of living crisis, and feel it will only endanger children and place them at higher risk, as well as having a severe effect on the mental health of staff members.

“After speaking with many early-years staff members, a great number of those have left the industry as they say they felt they couldn’t protect children on the current adult to child ratios.

“Adding another child into the mix will just dilute their attention and increase the risk as there will be less eyes on each child.”

Nurseries in the UK have been underfunded for years, he added, “which means that staff can’t be paid what they should be value-wise. So, people are leaving to go and do things such as stack shelves because it’s better money.

“Nursery staff are not babysitters – they are educators in the most important developmental stages of life for a child.

“The staff retention rate at the moment is abysmal and it is such a shame that the Government focus is on ratios, rather than funding.

“Changing ratios and adding greater risk is not the solution. Our petition, now at more than 109,000 signatures, shows the powerful objection to the changes being proposed.”

Childcare came under the spotlight again at Prime Ministers’ Questions in the Commons last week, when Conservative MP Siobhan Baillie asked Rishi Sunak whether after “decades of ineffective tinkering and endless policies” he was going to be “the man to give us proper childcare reform”.

Mr Sunak answered that there were “ambitious new plans” to improve the cost, choice and availability of childcare to “benefit hundreds of thousands of parents across the country, and said: “This includes measures to increase the number of children that can be looked after by each staff member and indeed make it easier for people to become childminders.”

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Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, says: “Relaxing ratios in childcare settings is neither an ‘ambitious’ or a ‘new’ plan.

“It’s one that was thrown out by the Coalition government in 2015 because they discovered it would reduce the quality of early-years education whilst not decreasing costs for parents.”

Lauren Fabianki, campaign manager at Pregnant Then Screwed, added that rising childcare costs were pricing mothers out of work and plunging families into poverty, but that relaxing ratios was not an effective solution to the problem at all.

“The childcare sector is on its knees, thousands of nurseries have closed already this year. Asking staff to look after more children will not enable the 84 per cent of nurseries that are struggling to hire more staff to entice new talent or retain precious staff, nor will it ease the consciences of the 85 per cent of parents who do not want to see ratios increased.

“If the Government moves ahead with this ridiculous policy it could well be the straw that breaks the camel’s back; a price we will be paying for decades to come.”

The current ratios for England state there must be one adult to every three children aged two years or younger, and one adult to every four children aged two years and over.

The debate in Parliament on the issue of increasing ratios in nurseries follows the petition from Oliver Steeper’s parents.

Oliver is believed to have choked at Jelly Beans day nursery in Ashford in September 2021. He died six days later at Evelina London Children’s Hospital. His father said doctors had to turn off life support as their son had suffered catastrophic damage to his brain.

Ofsted suspended Jelly Beans day nursery’s registration after the incident, and it has since closed completely.

Kent Police’s investigation into the circumstances of a death at a childcare facility in Ashford is ongoing.

The petition launched by Oliver’s parents has gained more than 109,000 signatures (Photo: Lewis Steeper)

Lewis told I he and wife were haunted daily by the memories of losing Oliver and their home was full of photographs of their beloved son, who he described as: “the perfect child”.

He said: “As first-time parents, we didn’t really know what to expect and were under the impression babies cried and screamed a lot. But Oliver was just not like that. We either had a miracle or the perfect baby. We didn’t even know when he was teething.

“Oliver was just such a cheeky, happy little boy all the time and it seemed like from the moment he first laughed, he just didn’t stop.

“He had such big, beautiful blue eyes and crazy blonde hair and was such a cheeky and charismatic character. Just one phone call, and all this was wiped away.

“We never got to say goodbye because he never woke up. We are grateful we had six days in London with him before they switched the machine off.

“What happened to us is every parent’s worst nightmare. You don’t think something like this will happen to you, you wish it didn’t happen to you; you wish it didn’t happen to anyone. But we got that phone call and it changed our lives forever.”

‘People put their children into nursery for their most precious thing to be looked after. It’s massively important that care should not be diluted,’ said Lewis (Photo: Lewis Steeper)

He revealed that he and Zoe, who works in HR for Kent Fire and Rescue Service, are facing a bittersweet scenario as Zoe is pregnant with a boy due to be born in January. “It’s a weird place to be in, as it is almost like you’re forgetting Oliver by having another baby.

“It feels bittersweet as although we are very happy about the new baby coming, we do feel mixed emotions. We were secretly hoping for a girl for our mental states, as it would have been different to having Oliver. But with it being a boy, we know he will look like Oliver and probably have the same mannerisms.

“Every day is a constant reminder that Oliver should still be here and should now be looking forward to his new brother coming.”

Lewis says the thought of having anyone other than themselves looking after their new baby terrifies them, and one of them will probably quit work or go part-time so they can put off placing him in childcare until he is a bit older.

He works as a self-employed drone surveyor. “We know we’ll have to do it at some point because sadly money doesn’t grow on trees, but we will do our best not to do it at such an early age,” he said.

The couple told how they decided to launch their petition after hearing about the Government’s potential plans to increase the number of children early-years staff can look after.

“People put their children into nursery for their most precious thing to be looked after,” says Lewis. “It’s massively important that they get the attention every child should get and that care should not be diluted by changing the current ratios.

“Through all the heartache we have been dealt, this petition has given us a real focus and we want to achieve something positive by blocking any plans the Government have for increasing ratios.”

The Early Years Alliance, representing the sector in England, is supporting the petition. Its chief executive Neil Leitch said the group’s research had shown proposed changes to ratios would not reduce costs for parents, and were not in the best interests of children or staff.

Now would be the “worst possible time” to implement such a change, he added.

A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “The welfare and safety of children remains a priority and we have consulted on the language used in the Early Years Foundation Stage framework to be explicit on the requirement for children to be adequately supervised whilst eating.

“We have also consulted on moving to the Scottish staff-to-child ratios, from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds, to give providers more flexibility in how they run their businesses while maintaining safety and quality of care . No decisions have been made yet, but we will set out our response shortly.”

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