Parents may not have heard of the National Childcare Strategy, but their lives are being affected by it. Mary Evans examines how much progress has been made
Further reforms and increased investment are needed if the National Childcare Strategy is to reach its aims of providing accessible, affordable, good-quality childcare to all parents who want it, according to early years organisations. Launched in May 1998 by the year-old Labour Government, the strategy - which covers England only, as powers regulating childcare have passed to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland assemblies under devolution - has many of its targets fixed to deadlines in 2004. At the halfway mark in its first phase of implementation, the verdict from childcare campaigners is: so far so good, but more needs to be done.
The Daycare Trust, for example, wants to see a children's centre in every neighbourhood standing as a beacon for 'appropriate, affordable, quality childcare' for every child aged 0-14. In a policy paper, Quality Matters: Ensuring childcare benefits children, the Trust also stresses, 'it is vital that children receive stable and continuous care.' And it quotes a MORI poll this year that found that for 70 per cent of parents the most important factor in the provision of high-quality childcare was the availability of trained, experienced staff, but it concedes that high staff turnover because of poor pay and conditions, and lack of training and status, do nothing to develop a high-quality child-centred workforce.
The National Day Nurseries Association agrees, and says that to overcome this problem the Government must rethink its funding. Chief executive Rosemary Murphy says, 'For too long, staff in private and voluntary early years settings have been subsidising childcare by working for low pay. Managers know if they increase the wages they will have to raise fees to levels that parents cannot afford.' She argues that the Government must help parents meet the true costs of childcare and thus enable settings to pay staff more.
Anne Longfield, chief executive of the Kids' Clubs Network, says that 'the seeds of a national system of childcare have been sown. However, to meet demand we need to see continued investment both for start-up costs and sustainability, with fast-track support for training and quality'. Since 1997 the number of out-of-school clubs has doubled to 7,000, offering 240,000 places, but Anne Longfield says that 'demand is enormous and waiting lists are often long. We need to see a club near every school'.
Two of the Network's key aims - getting schools to open their premises to local communities, and more out-of school provision for 12- to 14-year-olds - have recently been adopted by the Government.
For its part, the National Childminding Association is calling for equality of treatment for its members alongside other childcare providers. A spokesman for the association says, 'If you are an employer setting up childcare provision and if you contract to have the provision on the site, it is tax deductible, but if you have a contract with a childminding network it is not tax deductible. This is not fair and it goes against the Government's stated aim of providing parental choice.' NW
A parent's guide to the National Childcare Strategy
The National Childcare Strategy was launched in May 1998 by the Labour Government.
Why was it introduced?
The strategy, which aims to provide good-quality, affordable and accessible childcare, was set two tests by ministers, to provide:
- better outcomes for children, including readiness to learn by the time they reach school and enjoyable, developmental activities out of school hours; and
- the chance for more parents to take up work or training because they have access to diverse, good-quality childcare.
How does it work?
The NCS is delivered by the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnerships to meet local needs. The EYDCPs are attached to local authorities and are made up of childcare providers from the public, private and voluntary sectors. Between April 1997 and March 2001 almost 700,000 new childcare places have been created and the EYDCPs are well on track to meet the Government's target of providing new places for 1.6 million children by 2004.
Where are these childcare places?
The Government stresses the importance of parental choice, so places are provided in a range of settings - nursery schools, nursery classes in schools, private nurseries, playgroups, out-of-school clubs and childminding networks. The places include:
- A free part-time nursery place for every four-year-old from September 1998 extended to every three-year-old by 2004.
- A childcare place in the most disadvantaged areas for every lone parent entering employment, plus an extra 100,000 places for three- and four-year-olds offering a complete integrated day of early years education and childcare.
- A network of Neighbourhood Nurseries in the most deprived areas, with a target of 45,000 full-time new places in up to 900 Neighbourhood Nurseries by 2004.
- Wraparound care - providing a seamless mix of care before and after time spent in school or early education - which is being developed through a three-year pilot programme across five areas. A further 250 nursery schools are being supported to develop services including wraparound care.
- The Government plans to change the law to enable schools to offer an extended day of dawn until dusk childcare.
- Out-of-school clubs have expanded rapidly from 3,500 clubs with 115,000 places in 1997 to 7,000 clubs offering 240,000 places today and an estimate of 12,000 clubs providing 400,000 places by 2004.
How is quality assured?
From September 2001 the Early Years Directorate, a new arm of Ofsted, took over the inspection and regulation of early years settings. Inspections will be guided by the National Standards for the Regulation of Daycare (see 'A parent's guide to inspections', Nursery World, 16 August 2001). Last year the Foundation Stage was introduced for children aged three to five to give them the basis they need in early learning and personal and social development through play activities (see 'A parent's guide to the Foundation Stage', Nursery World, 21 September 2001).
However, recruitment and retention of high-calibre staff in pre-school settings where wages are low is a major problem. The Department for Education and Skills estimates that at least 150,000 new people need to be recruited by March 2004. It has set the Learning and Skills Council a target to award 230,000 people new or higher childcare qualifications by March 2004. By then, up to 1,000 a people a year will be attaining senior early years practitioner or teacher status through a new framework of qualifications.
How is childcare becoming more affordable?
Quality childcare is expensive, despite the poor pay rates of those providing it. Low- to middle-income earning parents are able to claim childcare tax credit (part of the Working Families Tax Credit) currently for up to 70 per cent of eligible childcare costs, to a maximum of 135 for one child and 200 for two or more. However, this is under review.
How can I find out about childcare in my locality?Contact your town hall for the Children's Information Service. Investors in Children, a new national quality star-rating scheme for childcare providers, will be launched next September as a guide for parents. Accredited providers will be able to display their ratings.