Speaking at Nursery World’s two-year-olds conference yesterday, assistant director for two-year-olds and children's centres Christina Bankes said that as of May 2014, there were 116,000 children in two-year-old places, while projections for September 2014 are 180,000. This means 64,000 children will have to be found a place in the next two months.
Ms Bankes said, ‘We don’t know what will happen. We are very anxious to see those projections are reached but I don’t underestimate the challenge in getting there.’
The most progress in reaching eligible two-year-olds is happening in the south west, while London is lagging behind. In total, 42 per cent of children across the country are receiving the free childcare they will legally be entitled to in September, Ms Bankes said.
The programme is aimed at giving the 40 per cent most deprived two-year-olds across the country 15 hours of free childcare a week, a requirement which is due to start in September, though some councils have introduced it already. A total of 260,000 children nationally will be eligible for the places once the scheme is fully rolled out.
Ms Bankes added, ‘There is a lot of political will behind the policy. I spend a lot of time updating the [deputy prime minister’s office]. Having the personal interest of the deputy prime minister … [is something] I want to take advantage of … while we can.’
She went on to state what the Government is doing to help boost takeup:
- Raising awareness of an eligibility checking service, which was originally launched to check pupils’ entitlement to school meals, and enables councils and schools to check the funded early education entitlement for specific children
- Working with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health to make sure Jobcentres and health services spread the message
- A national marketing campaign, featuring radio ads and posters with information about the programme, which will be targeted at the most deprived areas of the country over the summer
- Providing all local authorities with a termly list of parents of potentially eligible children living within their area for targeted communication.
Ms Bankes said a fresh list has recently been sent, though she admitted some councils have said these have not always been very accurate.
James Hempsall, managing director of Hempsall’s training and research consultancy leading the Achieving Two-Year-Olds project, pointed out that the Government’s initial approach to informing parents they were entitled to free childcare places was to send a brown envelope and densley worded letter. Many parents didn’t open this letter, he said, and the strategy has now been changed. He highlighted successful campaigns from local authorities including Lambeth who took a bus around estates and performed on-the-spot eligibility checks with residents.
Meanwhile, in a bid to boost recognition of the early years sector, Ms Bankes said that she was keen for more early years practitioners to be acknowledged by the honours system. She said, ‘The childcare sector is really badly represented in terms of honours. I don’t think it is a reflection on the people in the sector. I think it is having the confidence to say ‘you deserve it’. I guarantee that you will know somebody who has gone above and beyond the call of duty to change people’s lives - we really want to see you being celebrated at a national level.’