Coronavirus: Councils ignoring DfE guidance on funding nurseries and childminders at pre-Covid levels

Catherine Gaunt
Wednesday, September 30, 2020

One in six local authorities in England are failing to follow Government guidance on early years funding intended to protect providers from the financial impact of coronavirus, an investigation by the Early Years Alliance has revealed.

Thousands of early years providers across the country have lower numbers of children attending than they would usually this term, as a result of the pandemic
Thousands of early years providers across the country have lower numbers of children attending than they would usually this term, as a result of the pandemic

The Government confirmed in July that local authorities would receive early years funding for the autumn term on the basis of how many children were attending settings in their areas before the coronavirus pandemic hit.

The move is designed to ensure that providers are safeguarded from the current low demand for childcare places due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite reopening more widely, early years providers are operating with around half of their usual intake. The latest official figures from the DfE on attendance show that an estimated 674,000 children attended early years settings on 24 September. This represents approximately 52 per cent of children who usually attend childcare in term time.

In order to protect early years providers from a drop in income as a result of lockdown, the Department for Education updated guidance for local authorities advising them to fund nurseries, childminders and pre-schools from September based on January 2020 census data (i.e the number of children attending settings in autumn 2019).

However, in recent weeks the Alliance has received a number of reports from early years providers that councils are not adhering to the revised DfE guidance.

In response, the organisation filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to every local authority in England, asking if they were basing the funding given to early years providers this term on child attendance numbers from last year, as stated in the current DfE guidance.

Of the 120 councils that responded, 20 (17 per cent) stated that the were not following this guidance. A further seven (6 per cent) stated that they were only following the guidance in some circumstances, such as funding nurseries and pre-schools based on last year’s childcare attendance numbers, but not childminders, while three (3 per cent) were still yet to decide how they would fund settings this term.

The Alliance has provided details of its investigation findings to the Department for Education.

Commenting on the FOI, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Alliance, said, ‘It is simply unacceptable that so many local authorities have disregarded the DfE guidance on early years funding during this critical time – and more importantly, that they have been allowed to do so.

‘The Government has said that it is “block-buying” funded early years places until the end of the year but as our investigation shows, in many areas, this simply isn’t true as the money isn’t making it to the frontline.

‘We have been contacted by many providers who had budgeted and planned on the basis of the Government’s reassurances that their funding for the autumn term wouldn’t be affected by the pandemic, only to find out at the last minute that this isn’t the case. For many, this could be the difference between surviving the next few months, and being forced to close their doors.

‘It cannot be that councils can simply choose to disregard government guidance, when that guidance has been issued to ensure the sustainability of the early years sector at such a difficult time. As such, we urge the Department to tackle this issue as a matter of urgency and make it clear that it is a requirement, and not an option, for all councils to fund all providers fully and fairly. 

‘The next few months are going to be difficult enough for the sector – neither central Government or local authorities should be making it any harder.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said, 'Local authorities have a legal duty to ensure there is a sufficient number of childcare places in their area and our guidance makes clear how we expect local authorities should fund early years entitlement places during the Covid-19 outbreak.

'Local authorities should only take a different approach from that set out in guidance if they have good reasons for doing so and communicate this clearly to their providers. We are in regular contact with authorities to remind them of this and query any funding approaches where there is a concern.'

What does the guidance say?

The current DfE guidance states that free entitlement funding for the 2020 autumn term will be based on the January 2020 census count (not on January 2021) due to the exceptional circumstances caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Children and families minister Vicky Ford has described this as the Government “block-buying” childcare places for the rest of this year at the level they would have been funded before coronavirus, regardless of how many children are attending.

Under current DfE guidance, councils are expected to take the same approach and to fund nurseries, pre-schools and childminders 'broadly the levels they would have expected to see in the 2020 autumn term had there been no coronavirus outbreak’.

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