The general election saw one striking similarity across the manifestos; all the major parties pledged to increase free early years childcare places. And sure enough, the Government announced plans in the Queen’s Speech to introduce up to 30 hours per week free childcare for three and four year-olds in England.
[caption id="attachment_4477" align="alignright" width="810"] Nursery school environment, Wikimedia Commons[/caption]
Offering free childcare has been done before. So what’s new about this? Most obviously, the number of free childcare hours on offer has doubled, from 15 hours to 30 hours per week.
But there’s also a shift in focus. Previous schemes had been available to all children, or targeted to give unemployed and low-income families access to high-quality childcare that they otherwise might struggle to afford. The new 30-hour entitlement will only benefit those families where both parents are working – the ‘hardworking families’ that were mentioned so often during the election. Families where any parent isn’t working, for whatever reason, won’t be able to take up the free places.
On the face of it free childcare seems like an unequivocally good idea – who could quibble with a three-year-old getting a free nursery place? But some in the early years sector have concerns about the proposals.
I spoke to Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, the largest early years membership organisation in England, to find out how these proposals could affect schools with early years provision.
Do you think the new 30 hours' entitlement will be financially viable for providers?
Neil: There’s a massive discrepancy between the funding proposed by the government - £350 million - and what the scheme is likely to cost to deliver, which is £1.5 billion. That’s a shortfall of £1.15 billion! That’s not just my estimate – when Labour proposed a similar scheme in 2014, that’s what Sam Gyimah, parliamentary under-secretary of state for childcare and education, told Parliament it would cost.
Providers won’t want to participate in the scheme if it’s underfunded. Currently, those that are offering 15 hours of funded places are reliant on parents buying additional hours to ‘top up’ their income per child. With a full 30 hours being funded, that won’t happen.
Trying to offer 30 hours’ childcare for less money may mean cutting back on resources – which in turn could mean that quality suffers.
What do you think of the shift in focus towards ‘working families’?
Neil: The funding for disadvantaged two-year-olds introduced under the Coalition was driven by the Liberal Democrats. Under the new Conservative government, it’s all about getting stay-at-home parents, particularly mothers, back into work.
There doesn’t seem to be much consideration of what children or parents actually want. If it wasn’t an economic necessity, would most parents want to leave their children in childcare for so long? Research from Netmums in 2004 (The great work debate, Netmums 2004) found that 88% of parents would prefer to spend more time at home with their children, by working part-time or more flexibly.
Do you think 30 hours of childcare a week is in the best interests of a three-year-old?
Neil: Of course every child is different, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that three and four year-olds who get 30 hours of childcare per week do better on average in terms of development than those that get 15 hours.
Also, parental attachment is so important in the early years. Why not let parents be parents?
What would you say to a school that was considering participating in the scheme?
Neil: Schools are under immense pressure from all sides. They’re being pushed by government to increase their early years provision, particularly to take more two-year-olds. But schools don’t always have the expertise to look after large groups of very young children - I’m thinking here of twos and young threes - who need to learn through play.
I would say that schools shouldn’t see the 30-hour entitlement as an easy way to get funding, or to ensure funding in later years by having a ready-made reception class intake from an on-site nursery. It has to be about the benefit to the child.
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