Asmall group of out-of-work families are among those set to benefit from Hertfordshire’s early implementer trial of the 30 hours of funded childcare. Hertfordshire is one of eight local authorities piloting the scheme, creating 5,000 places of subsidised childcare for three- and four-year-olds between them from September 2016.
Take-up of the trial has been enthusiastic in the county – there are an estimated 10-15,000 eligible three- and four-year-olds – and the council has filled 391 of the 415 places on offer since the launch in September. But it is keeping 20 places aside as part of a DfE project to support parents back into work.
Children’s centre teams are working with Job Centre Plus staff to support families on benefits. ‘It is intensive work, a lot more than “let’s help write your CV”,’ says David Shevlane, development manager, childhood support services at Hertfordshire County Council. ‘We are helping them find work in their chosen career. We have kept back places to give parents on the scheme time to become confident enough to return to work, and time to find work – that was part of our bid, and is one of our unique selling points. Hopefully, children will take up those places in the new year when their parents gain confidence to go back to work.’
Four maintained nursery schools are playing a central role in the local authority’s delivery of the 30 funded hours. Batford Nursery School, Kingswood Nursery School, Rye Park Nursery School (see case study) and Weston Way Nursery School are ‘childcare hubs’.
‘We decided to have four hubs spread across the county, in the east, north, south and west,’ says Mr Shevlane. ‘We had such a small number of places available that we had to put in local criteria on top of the national eligibility criteria [to succeed in the bid],’ says Mr Shevlane. To be eligible for the funded places, parents have to live within two miles of a childcare hub, but they can take their funded hours with any provider in the county.
The idea is that the hubs support parents in finding the right providers, and providers in meeting the new demands placed on them. In practice, however, around 85 per cent of parents have generally opted to take the hours in their current setting. Helen Ackerman, head teacher of the Rye Park hub, says, ‘We have been working with other local providers, including childminders, pre-schools and nurseries, since April 2016, co-ordinating meetings and training. Training has been provided by the local Acorns Teaching Schools Alliance, but we have acted as hosts, arranged invitations and provided hospitality.’
The Government has said that it wants business support for childcare providers in areas where sufficiency is a significant risk, ensuring settings are sustainable and to provide maximum value for money for parents and taxpayers.
Hertfordshire County Council has employed an independent company to offer business support workshops, covering issues such as how differing business models might be impacted by the additional demands of the 30 hours, while Acorns is looking at areas such as quality of provision from a child’s perspective, and transition between settings.
‘When we started the trial we were not sure what was going to happen, and we were geared up for a lot of partnership working between settings,’ says Mr Shevlane. ‘But the majority of parents are just looking for one provider, so partnership working was not the issue we thought it might be.’
Around 142 providers have signed up to the scheme, including childminders, pre-schools, maintained nursery schools and PVI nurseries. ‘Some 78 are currently delivering places, a nice cross-section of the market,’ says Mr Shevlane. The extra 15 hours are funded at a rate of £4.88 per hour, with £4.62 the hourly rate for the first 15.
Providers are able to take part in a buddying scheme to share good practice as a means of raising quality, with nursery staff visiting their childminder colleagues, for example. ‘People have been pretty keen on this, building relationships and looking at good practice,’ says Mr Shevlane.
CASE STUDY: RYE PARK NURSERY SCHOOL, HODDESTON
Back in February this year, then-Treasury minister Damien Hinds paid a visit to Rye Park Nursery School to mark the government announcement that Hertfordshire was one of eight local authorities in the pilot. Media coverage of the event led to the nursery’s phone ringing off the hook with enquiries. ‘We were inundated with calls from parents wanting more information,’ says head teacher Helen Ackerman.
Many were confused about eligibility. Prior to the pilot scheme launching in September this year, staff at Rye Park were planning for six eligible families to take up their funded places. Two months after the beginning of the autumn term, that had increased to 28.
‘Even though we sent out lots of information before the summer, many parents couldn’t quite believe that they would be eligible for something like that,’ says Mrs Ackerman. ‘It was a domino effect – when parents saw other families taking up the offer, they realised they might be eligible. We have had to cap the number of funded places we can offer now because we have reached capacity.’
Most of the families who have taken up the offer want the full 30 hours, and the majority are taking all of their hours at the nursery, says Mrs Ackerman. Two families are splitting their time between the nursery and a childminder.
Initially the local authority was keen on promoting a stretched offer, whereby providers would stretch the 30 hours a week all year round. As a maintained nursery school only open during term time, Rye Park is not able to offer this, but parents seem happy with the setting’s offer, says Mrs Ackerman. The nursery is open between 8.45am and 3.30pm in term time, and eligible families are able to take their 30 hours between 9am and 3pm.
Hourly rates are a concern, as the £4.88 per hour funding for 30-hour places is less than the maintained nursery receives from the local authority for its usual ‘education’ places. ‘The local authority funds us very well because maintained nurseries need to employ qualified teachers and a qualified head teacher,’ says Mrs Ackerman. The nursery has also been hit financially because it is offering its lunch club, which it previously charged for, to funded children for free. The setting has also found that families accessing the 30 hours do not require additional hours.
There are also potential capacity issues in the future. ‘In the autumn term it is not unknown for us to have a lower take-up in the afternoon, so I have filled those spaces with families taking up the 30 hours,’ says Mrs Ackerman. ‘But in January when children move up from the pre-school, there will now be fewer places to offer, and we will lose out financially because we will be replacing education-funded hours with care-funded hours.’
Parents have been over the moon with the scheme, however, with some saying it is worth £300 a month to them. ‘For some parents this is life-changing,’ says Mrs Ackerman. ‘One mum was working nights and weekends, and she can now adjust her hours and spend weekends with her family, which is priceless.’
James Hempsall, who has the support contract Childcare Works, to aid delivery of the 30 hours, talks collaboration
Hertfordshire is a comparatively large and diverse county, with a correspondingly complex provider infrastructure. I was fascinated to discover that their version of early implementation aimed to test out how they could support families not currently working with 30 hours of free childcare, and how they were facilitating links between providers centred around their nursery school hubs.
Hertfordshire’s was an ambitious objective. Families cannot simply move from not working and into employment – and quickly. There is so much for families to consider, including some complex financial decisions, breaking down barriers, developing work-readiness, and juggling the needs of their children, school and childcare.
This change and the necessary support has aimed to be delivered in ways that are non-stigmatising, and involved the raft of necessary agencies. And the many providers involved in delivery have been offered essential business support so they in turn can manage their complex financial decisions and competing agendas.
It must feel like an unsurmountable task for even the most confident of families, let alone those who are not in the world of work. But Hertfordshire’s early implementation take-up has been excellent. And I attribute this success to understanding the need for providers and partner agencies to collaborate.
It’s also because 30 hours of childcare is a tremendous offer for parents. It will enable families to make positive sense of the economics of income and expenditure, while balancing their children’s childcare and early learning needs.
I have been interested to learn from the Hertfordshire model. What is striking so far is how parents appear to be preferring to access their extended entitlement in single provider settings – something for us all to consider. Also, as many parents did not realise they were eligible, we must ask what information do parents need to make informed choices?