As the Childcare Bill finishes its journey through the House of the Lords, Heather Ransom, from NCB’s policy team, reflects on the development of the new 30-hour free childcare offer for three-and-four-year-olds.
Childcare was a flagship policy in the run up to the General Election, with all leading political parties promising to extend the number of free hours for pre-school children. Whilst the original aim of early education and childcare was to support children’s learning and development, this time around its focus is on supporting working parents.
As a result, some of the most vulnerable families will miss out: a missed opportunity given that making childcare more available could help these parents to enter the job market or access education and training.
The fast pace of reforms, with implementation of the scheme due in September 2017, means that legislation is being debated before the Childcare Funding Review has been completed. Nurseries and childminders have been vocal in calling for greater financial investment so that they can continue to deliver high quality childcare without putting up fees for younger children. These concerns are shared by the House of Lords – they have voted to hold back passing legislation until it becomes clearer what funding will be available and how it will be distributed to providers.
At NCB, we are working to ensure that children’s experiences of childcare are not overlooked in the debate. Over the past few years we have seen a gradual increase in the quality of early education and childcare with 85% of providers now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. This is heartening, particularly at a time when early years has felt the brunt of local authority cuts.
We would like to see this improvement continue.
Through the Childcare Bill we are calling for early years staff to be supported to improve their qualifications, so that they have the skills and knowledge to work with all young children, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. We welcome the recent commitment by government to set out progression routes for the early years workforce – we believe that opportunities must be put in place at every level in order to attract and retain good practitioners.
The Department for Education has invited early years providers to pilot the new childcare scheme from next September. They will be responding to some of the challenges of expanding childcare provision and hope to identify the key ingredients of high-quality, accessible and flexible free offer. In reality, many children will be attending more than one nursery, school, or childminder in order to access the full 30-hours. Providers will therefore need to work closely together in the local community, with the support of the local authority, to develop a free childcare model that works for both children and parents.
Free childcare is a worthy aim – but bringing the pieces of the jigsaw together in a way that ensures both access and quality is key to ensuring children and families really benefit.