Charity's advice for schools prioritises cost over quality

Schools taking two-year-old children should 'try not to overqualify' their staff if they are worried about underfunding, according to advice published by a Department for Education (DfE)-funded charity.

Setting Up Childcare for Two-Year-Olds in Schools recommends managers employ apprentices and 'think about flexible contracts' for staff to keep costs down.

The document, which was published by The Learning Exchange last month and headed with the DfE logo, also advises that, apart from some activities such as mealtimes, 'two-year-olds do not necessarily need one-to-one attention and care'.

In a section entitled 'What if the funding I get from the local authority doesn't cover the cost of delivering the childcare for two-year-olds?', it says, 'There are a variety of ideas that can be put in place ... For example, with regard to staff, try not to 'overqualify' your childcare team. A way to keep your wage overheads down could be to employ modern apprentices alongside experienced staff with NVQ Level 3 in childcare qualifications who have worked in PVIs (private, voluntary and independents) with two-year-olds, and have also worked alongside the school nursery team, which works with threeand four-year-olds.'

Early years consultant Penny Tassoni said the advice was 'fairly appalling'. She said, 'It makes a mockery of the initiative, which is designed to improve children's outcomes. I am particularly concerned by the lack of consideration of two-year-olds' developmental needs, including the phrase that they may not need one-to-one attention.'

When it comes to two-year-olds, the document advises: 'The structure of a typical day for two-year-olds does not necessarily need to differ too much from that for threeand four-year-olds, except that it includes time for nappy changing and toileting, as well as sleep times.'

It adds, 'Integrating two-year-old children into the same space where you offer childcare for threeand fouryear-olds will mean you do not need to consider extra overheads for premises.'

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive of Early Education, said the guide 'seems to be encouraging schools to prioritise cost over quality when it comes to introducing two-year-old provision.

'The starting point should always be what's best for the child. All the research, including the Government's own pilot of the funded two-year-old provision, shows that only high quality provision makes a difference. Schools must not feel pressured to take two-year-olds unless they are confident about delivering that quality.'

Ms Merrick added, 'If taking on apprentices, schools must think about how they will be supported by experienced, qualified staff, and not just think about costs and minimum requirements on ratios. With thought and care it can be possible for two-year-olds to share space with threeand four-year-olds, but schools shouldn't assume this will necessarily be a suitable solution.'

The Learning Exchange, a website hosted by charity Family Action, is described on its website as being 'dedicated to providing schools across England with shared good practice for the process of setting up school-based childcare ... particularly for older children aged between eight and 14.'

The document was written in consultation with St Bede Academy, a Bolton school which runs private nurseries. But the document wrongly refers to the school as a PVI. It says, 'PVIs may quite often also deliver in-house training from which schools could benefit. St Bede Academy and Baby Bede Nursery in Bolton are a good example of this.'

Jack Hatch, the headteacher of St Bede, says this allusion was 'garbled' and in general 'the text is a little confusing and perhaps doesn't get its points over in the best way possible'. But, he added, 'all the points it made are factually correct; it's when it comes to the interpretation and context of those points that the divergence creeps in.

'There is a need for overall management of staffing costs, as in all businesses. This doesn't mean you need to look for a low-cost workforce. Indeed, it means the staff you appoint need to all be appropriately qualified for their roles otherwise the unit ceases to exit, which ultimately lets families down.'

Family Action said it was 'entirely wrong' to suggest the document was intended as guidance. A spokeswoman said, 'The document in question is a FAQ sheet with the responses provided by professionals working within this particular local setting.

'Family Action believes it is entirely wrong to suggest that answers given by practitioners to questions, asked on a practice sharing website, amounts to guidance. If practitioners' comments are taken out of context and disparaged in this way it will discourage practitioners from debating practice and expressing a range of views. We are firmly of the view this will not help to improve practice.'

However, the document, which contains phrases such as 'the benefits of having a qualified teacher spending at least some time working with two-year-olds could be beneficial', makes no reference to being the views of particular practititioners.

Family Action said that it was going to produce a revised version and that it is working closely with Jack Hatch in relation to the points raised.

It added that it would encourage other providers to share their experiences of providing childcare for two-year-olds 'so we are able to highlight as wide a range of views as possible from across the sector'.

A DfE spokesman said The Learning Exchange has been DfE funded from 2013 to 2015 and gives 'excellent advice on setting up and running provision'. Activity beyond the grant funding agreement is not monitored by the DfE.

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