As the Childcare Bill starts its passage through the House of Lords, Zoe Renton, NCB’s Head of Policy, asks whether it will deliver for young children.
Today (16th June), Lords and Baronesses will be getting their teeth into a new government Bill on childcare, starting the long process of Parliament’s scrutiny of the legislation. The Childcare Bill aims to give 15 extra hours of free childcare to three and four year-olds with working parents, extending the amount of free childcare to a total of 30 hours per week over 38 weeks. It’s a welcome ambition, as we know that a lack of childcare does pose a barrier to parents working and good quality early education can help children develop well. But, at only six clauses long, the Bill provides little detail about how the government will deliver on its surprise manifesto commitment.
Here are some of the questions I hope MPs and Peers will be asking as the Bill progresses through Parliament.
What will count as childcare?
The original free entitlement to 15 hours of early education was aimed at both improving young children’s outcomes and enabling parents to work. It is vital that this additional offer does the same. We know that good quality early education or childcare is particularly beneficial for those growing up in poverty or disadvantage, and poor quality care can have a neutral or even negative impact on the child. So, what standards will childcare settings have to meet in order to deliver the additional free hours?
How will we cover the costs?
Concerns about the current under-funding of childcare places have been widely reported – an estimated total of £177 million according to the Pre-School Learning Alliance. Providers and experts say that this poses a barrier to delivering good quality childcare, in particular for young children with additional needs, such as those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). This problem will only get worse if the planned rapid expansion in the number of hours on offer is not underpinned by sufficient funding, so the government’s review of the funding situation is welcome. But how will this review take account of the additional costs associated with delivering childcare to disadvantaged children and children with SEND?
Who’s doing the childcaring?
A well-qualified, confident and experienced workforce is key to good quality early years services that improve young children’s outcomes. Whilst there are signs of a gradual improvement in the quality of the workforce, a significant minority of practitioners are without a Level 3 (A-Level) qualification, only 14 per cent of private, voluntary and independent childcare settings employ a graduate, and there continue to be concerns about staff vacancies. So the third question for the government, is will they develop a strategy for expanding and improving the quality of the early years workforce, as part of plans to deliver on their childcare ambitions?
Hopefully there will be full and robust answers to these and other questions as the Bill progresses through Parliament. Because, if implemented effectively and with the needs of young children in mind, this policy could be positive news for children and families.