Headteachers have warned that Government proposals to increase free childcare for working parents to 30 hours per week, could lead to many schools reducing the number of children they take.
The report by the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) found that four out of five school leaders are already dipping into their mainstream budgets to subsidise the free places they offer.
Currently all three and four-year-olds receive 15 hours of free childcare a week. The policy being rolled out from September 2016, would see free childcare double to 30 hours for children of working parents.
Some two thirds of school nurseries believe that increasing the provision of free childcare to 30 hours per week could mean they will end up reducing the total number of children they can take.
Only 15 per cent of school-based early years providers believe increasing the number of free childcare hours is sustainable under the current plans, the report 'An Early Years Place for All' reveals.
Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary said: “We support the aspiration to offer extra free childcare to working families and we believe the plan can work, but the Government now needs to keep to the commitments it has made about looking at funding and consulting with providers – otherwise some families could lose out.
“Many of our members have been telling us for some time that they are running their nurseries at a loss, subsidising them from their regular budget at a level that is not sustainable in the long term. The Government has to work with us to make sure that the policy becomes one that schools can actually deliver.”
Recommendations for change
Many respondents to the survey said that with the right capital funding, the free childcare pledge could be delivered. With that in mind, the report makes four key recommendations to the Department for Education.
Firstly, it recommends that to develop a national fair funding formula for nursery education and secondly to work with the sector to understand the issue of capacity and consider how to make sure that there is enough provision to meet demand. Thirdly, to understand that the provision of capital funding is key to the success of this policy and, finally, to consider that schools will need time to implement the policy, particularly if it means that they will have to reduce the number of children that they currently support.
Mr Hobby continued: “NAHT has repeatedly championed the importance of early years care. Now we need to see proper planning and funding so that this policy doesn’t fall short of its excellent intentions. Taking the first steps into a school environment is the most important stage of a child’s education.”
Leading early years organisations agree. Commenting on the survey, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: “These findings clearly reinforce the concerns raised by the private and voluntary childcare sector about the potential impact of the 30 hours offer.
“The early years sector has been significantly underfunded for many years, forcing providers to find other ways to cover the cost of providing places. For maintained settings, this often means raiding the rest of the schools budget, as highlighted in this report; for private, voluntary and independent (PVI) providers, it has meant minimal wages and an over-reliance on fundraising and the work of volunteers to stay afloat. And across the board, childcare costs for additional hours have inevitably risen as providers struggle to plug the growing funding gap. Clearly, this cannot continue.
“As the NAHT report highlights, extending funded childcare hours could result not only in increased costs to parents, but also in a shortage of places, as many providers simply do not have the capacity to double the number of funded hours they offer. It’s vital that Government resists the temptation to rush out a policy that, while attractive on the surface, is simply unworkable in its current form.
“While we welcome the fact that the issue of underfunding has now been acknowledged by government, this report highlights the huge scale of the problem that needs tackling. The Department for Education has often said that it wants a school-led early years system, and yet even schools aren’t being adequately funded.
“It’s clear that this is not just a PVI problem; it’s a sector-wide problem. Government must now commit to making fundamental changes to the early years funding system that ensure that all providers are fairly funded, not just today but in the long term.”
More than funding
Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years, added: “But it is not just about funding. We are also calling for the Government to implement a comprehensive workforce strategy that supports childcare professionals across all settings. A highly incentivised and trained workforce lies at the heart of giving children from all backgrounds the best start in life.”
It’s a view that national children and families charity 4Children also supports. Imelda Redmond, chief executive of 4Children said: “Many working families are depending on the success of this policy in order to make work a financially viable option. Working with the public, private and voluntary sectors, Government needs to understand the financial and capacity related challenges that must be addressed to make this important pledge a success.”
Davina Ludlow, director of daynurseries.co.uk, the leading online guide to day nurseries and nursery schools, added: “It is important that the Government encourages take up, however local authorities also need to be given the appropriate levels of funding first – this will not only allow them to assess the levels of childcare provision, but will ensure the system remains sustainable, easing the burden on hard-working families.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said in response to the report: “We know that childcare is one of the biggest issues affecting parents. This is why we are working closely with the sector to deliver 30 hours of free childcare, and innovative childcare providers are being asked to come forward as the first in the country to deliver it from September 2016.
“We have already committed to raising the average hourly rate providers receive, and are also undertaking a review of childcare costs to inform a new rate that is fair for providers and delivers value for money for the taxpayer.”