Many childcare centres have failed to prepare for the most significant reform to quality childcare in NSW in two decades even though the new standard has been signalled for two years.

The change took effect from January 1 and requires the carer-to-child ratio for those under two to increase from one-to-five to one-to-four.

The one-to-four ratio will become a national standard next year under a Council of Australian Governments agreement in December 2009. 

When centres reopen on January 10, fees will rise to meet the new staffing requirements. But in most cases the rises will fall well short of the $20 a day some lobby groups predicted last year. Some claimed thousands of mothers would have to give up work.

Where childcare is in over-supply, such as in south-western Sydney, proprietors will make minimal fee changes, an informal survey by the Herald found last week. In areas where demand is high, fees may rise by $10 a day in some private centres, and by $2 or $3 a day in non-profit centres.

Some private proprietors contacted by the Herald had failed to plan for the change in the belief that lobby groups would prevent the new ratio taking effect, as they had done twice in the past 14 years.

Mal Radojicic, who owns centres in Nowra and Wollongong, each licensed for five infants, said he thought the government had not made up its mind about the changes and he did not know what he would do when he reopened his doors. ''I could get another staff member at a cost of $700 a week and put my fees up $17 a day, or get rid of one of the baby spots,'' he said.

Another operator, Chris Buchtmann, said he attended a meeting of about 30 owners from south-western Sydney in October and ''they didn't know the one-to-four was going to happen, even though DOCS has been saying it for the last two years.''

A Community Services spokesman said centres had been given sufficient notice and there was no transitional period. But Community Services would be responsive to providers who were taking immediate steps to comply with the law and preferred to work with them rather than take formal enforcement action.

The one-to-four ratio will become a national standard next year under a Council of Australian Governments agreement in December 2009.

But in April the Minister for Community Services, Linda Burney, said NSW would implement the reform a year earlier in keeping with a commitment the government made in 2008. The opposition spokeswoman on community services, Pru Goward, said a Coalition government would not reverse the changes but would lobby the federal government to increase subsidies to avoid women leaving the workforce or using backyard care.

Frances Press, a senior lecturer in early childhood education at Charles Sturt University, said the reforms were long overdue. ''I don't think it takes much of a leap of imagination to think of one person being in a room with five babies,'' she said.

Lienna Mandic, the vice-president of Child Care NSW, which represents private operators, said the one-to-four ratio was "a ratio for the rich". But at four of the five centres she owns where she intends to cut places to comply, she said there had been longstanding vacancies for infants.

At the fifth centre there was strong demand and she would maintain the 20 infant places and increase fees by $5 a day.

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