Exclusive: Sector survey finds mixed views on 'free' childcare entitlements

Dr Jo Verrill, managing director Ceeda and Catherine Gaunt
Monday, March 2, 2020

Opinion is divided on the future of childcare entitlements, according to the results of a survey by Ceeda Research, carried out jointly with Nursery World.

Funded childcare - should it be free, subsidised, or a mixed model?
Funded childcare - should it be free, subsidised, or a mixed model?

More than 1,200 responses were received in the online poll, which ran for three weeks in January and February.  

The survey gathered views on which policy model could best support access to high quality early education and childcare for children from all backgrounds. The question was asked in two contexts:

  1. The best model ‘in principle’ – if funding was not an issue.
  2. The best model ‘in practice’ – given the current funding context.

A ‘hybrid’ model involving a mix of subsidised and free places garnered the most support, both in principle (45 per cent of respondents) and practice (46 per cent).

Votes were underpinned by a wealth of comment and detail on targeting government assistance, which will be reported soon.

The research formed part of the wider ‘Big EY Debate’, an event held by Ceeda in January to facilitate transparent debate on childcare entitlements, and encourage collaboration on solutions to well-evidenced challenges.


Source: Ceeda Research


Comments from survey respondents summed up the following positions:

The case for a free model: 'A free model eliminates discrimination. In deprived areas, parents who cannot afford to subsidise or pay for sessions would have their children excluded. The only fair system is the free model, although this is misrepresented and should be re-named, in order to provide an education to all children.'

The case for a subsidised model: 'Providers can choose to operate their businesses in a way that supports longevity, parents appreciate the setting more as they have to make some personal contribution, it is less divisive.   Providers can be more open with regards to extra services and consequently parents know where they are in respect of finances.'

The case for a hybrid model: 'I like the hybrid option because it enables families that really need help and support to get it for free. It can help prepare children to do well at school and in life, who may otherwise fall behind because of their family circumstances. But these children would be alongside children whose parents can pay and whose parents may well know how to advocate and demand outstanding childcare. This would improve outcomes for all.'

Commenting on the findings, Dr Jo Verrill, managing director at Ceeda, said, 'In reality, all three models explored in this survey are currently in evidence around the country, as providers struggle to bridge funding gaps, last estimated at £824 million*. No safety net currently exists for families and providers negatively impacted.

'The survey and related debate have highlighted the challenges and facilitated constructive discussion on solutions. There is an increasingly urgent need for a meaningful review of childcare policy, to recommend a constructive way forward on future Government investment. Next steps are currently being explored and we look forward to sharing more information soon.'

Reaction from the sector

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance said, 'We know that when it comes to Government policy, the ideal scenario and the most likely scenario are unfortunately often two different things.

'With the main political parties still clambering to out-do each other with their promises of more and more 'free childcare', the development of a different kind of model for the sector seems, as things stand, unlikely.

'However, this doesn't mean that this is something that we as a sector shouldn't debate, discuss and explore. Early years policy should work for the child, first and foremost, and should ensure that those families that need the most support get it and when this isn't happening, it is imperative upon us as a sector to challenge government.

'It's clear from the results of Ceeda's research that agreeing on a single route forward for the sector is no simple task, but agreeing on these fundamental principles seems a good place to start.'

*Ceeda (2019) Counting the cost of early years election pledges (December 2019.

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