Free entitlement should be linked to quality of early years settings

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A think tank is calling for early education funding to be given only to providers who can show they are ‘raising their game’.

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The Resolution Foundation report says funding should be linked to the quality of settings

In its report, the Resolution Foundation argues that in order for standards of early years education to be raised, more funding should be given to providers who are employing and developing staff with higher qualifications.

The think tank says there is little evidence to suggest that competition among early years settings has led to an increase in quality among them, yet the Government funding they receive comes on a ‘no strings’ basis, with no correlation to the standard of care and education they offer.

Funding is referred to as the free entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds, and three- and four-year-olds, as well as the Early Years Pupil Premium (EYPP), coming into effect from April 2015.

The report’s  authors, Kitty Stewart of the London School of Economics and Ludovica Gambaro of the Institute of Education, go on to say childcare providers should expect further public funding only if they can help to drive up the quality of early years care.

However, they say this can only be done with well-structured investment in quality, which currently does not exist, making it difficult or even impossible for settings to take on more high-quality staff.

The report also looks at similar childcare systems around the world to see how they attempt to address the twin challenge of affordability and quality, and how the UK might learn from them. Topics covered include funding, regulation, curriculum, qualifications and ratios.

As well as this, strengths and weaknesses of the UK childcare model are identified. The Early Years Foundation Stage and a strong inspection system through Ofsted are highlighted as ‘valuable aspects’.

While the think tank does not advocate any of the measures in the countries in particular, Norway, Germany, France, New Zealand and the USA, it suggests all of them are worth considering as part of a more innovative approach to improving the quality of early years provision. Suggestions include introducing better systems for funding and regulation in this country and making the two elements work better together.

Kitty Stewart, co-author of the report and associate professor at the LSE, said, 
’The UK’s early years education is failing to reach the standards achieved in other countries, in spite of the large, and increasing, amount of public money spent in subsidising providers.

‘That needs to change but we don’t have to tear up the existing system in order to improve it – we can overhaul the way we fund and regulate our childcare provision, drawing on the best evidence of what has worked in other countries and applying it to the UK’s particular circumstances.’

Vidhya Alakeson, deputy chief executive of the Resolution Foundation, said, 
’Even larger amounts of public money will be diverted into childcare in the coming years to support parents who want to work more. That’s very welcome, but this should also be a turning point where we review and revise how we deploy the extra money so that it’s of maximum benefit not only to working parents but also in raising the standards of care and learning for pre-school children.’

Commenting on the report, Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said that it did not take into account the 'huge financial losses nurseries offering funded childcare hours are making.'

NDNA figures show that private and voluntary nurseries are losing £900 per child per year on funded three- and four-year-old places and £600 per child per year on two-year-old places, effectively subsidising funded hours and having to raise the cost of paid for hours.

Ms Tanuku added, 'The knock-on effect of these losses is that nurseries are left with little to invest in staff training or employing highly qualified staff. It also leaves lower graded nurseries struggling to get up to good or outstanding Ofsted ratings.

'Although they provide the vast majority of childcare, as the report points out, private and voluntary nurseries are not on a level playing field with state provision which receives more funding and support allowing much greater investment in staff and resources.

'For a system where funding goes directly to good or outstanding providers to work we need more frequent inspections and consistent gradings.

'It is important the money invested in childcare is used to maximum benefit for children and families but we must avoid any revisions to the system creating more red tape and complications for both providers and parents.'

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance (PLA), said, 'We welcome the report’s call for substantial increased investment into the early years sector. Building a childcare system that is not only affordable but also high-quality is vital to ensuring that all children, and especially those from disadvantaged  backgrounds, are given the best possible start in life – but this can only be achieved with adequate government funding.
 
'The sector is wholly supportive of ambitions to develop a more highly-qualified early years workforce. However, since the removal of the Graduate Leader Fund in 2011, providers have received little practical support to help achieve this aim. As recognised by the report, the new early years pupil premium – while a step in the right direction – is highly unlikely to cover the cost of a graduate practitioner, as has been suggested by the Government.
 
'It’s vital that the Department for Education starts engaging with the sector in order to gain a better understanding of the challenges currently facing childcare providers, and how best they can supported to deliver high-quality, affordable childcare to children and families.'

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said, 'The quality of Early Years provision is hugely important and Government funding should not go to settings that aren’t good enough.

'That’s why as part of our plan for early years we’ve introduced robust Early Years Educator and Early Years Teacher qualifications to help improve the quality and status of the workforce. These reforms are already starting to bear fruit and 78 per ent of providers are now rated good or outstanding.'