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Parents told to pay top up fees if they want free nursery care, say MPs
Date of article: 25-May-12
Article By: Sue Learner, News Editor
Some parents are being told their children cannot attend nursery for free unless they pay ‘top-up fees’ for extra hours, says a cross-party group of MPs.
A report by the Public Accounts Committee claims some parents are being told their children are only eligible for free nursery if they pay for extra hours.
Free nursery education was introduced for all three to four-year-olds by the Labour Government a decade ago. Under the policy, they are entitled to 15 hours of free nursery education a week.
The report ‘The Free Entitlement to Education for Three and Four Year Olds’ said: ‘We are particularly concerned at reports that some families are still not receiving the entitlement free of charge; it is important that all parents know what the entitlement is and that it should be provided completely free.
'It is not enough for the Department to respond to complaints. It must actively take steps to ensure parents enjoy their legitimate right to free pre-school education for their children.’
The report also said there is a need for more research as while good early years education has shown 'educational improvement at age five, the evidence that this is sustained is questionable.
'The Department needs to do more to understand how educational benefits can be lasting and why outcomes at age seven have shown such little improvement,' it said.
The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, said: “The Department needs to get to grips with why there is little improvement at the age of seven and what happens between the ages of five and seven to lessen the effect.”
She added: “It is essential that all parents know exactly what their children are entitled to, and that it should be completely free. Too many families are missing out because parents are not being given the information they need. The Department must take steps to ensure that all families receive their entitlement, and that parents are able to compare providers so that they can make informed choices about what is best for their child.
"It is unacceptable for any parent to be charged for what should be a free entitlement. It is also completely unacceptable that some parents cannot access the free education unless they agree to pay 'top-up' fees for more hours. The Department must take action to prevent this."
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance welcomed the report and the recognition that there are a number of funding issues at the heart of the Government’s early years policy.
He said: “The report says that the Department for Education has only ‘a limited understanding’ of how the funding for early education is spent. This supports the fact that early years settings have consistently told us that they have not received enough money under the free early years entitlement to cover the cost of supplying places for three- and four year old children.
“Over a third of local authorities stated they had limited knowledge of the costs associated with delivery and one in 10 went as far as declaring they did not pay sufficient amounts.
“Committee Chair Margaret Hodge says that it is unacceptable for any parent to be charged for the free entitlement and unacceptable that some parents cannot access the free education unless they agree to pay ‘top up’ fees for more hours. We entirely agree, but it is equally deplorable that providers and parents who purchase additional hours are expected to subsidise the scheme.
“For far too long providers have had their pleas for equitable funding ignored. Perhaps at long last something will finally be done.
“As Government prepares for the extension of the entitlement for two year olds, providers will be watching closely to ensure the findings of the report are promptly acted upon.”
Earlier this year, a report by the National audit Office, also claimed that free nursery education had not had a lasting impact on children’s educational development.
Image: MP Margaret Hodge, courtesy of the Labour Party