Risk that poorer families could miss out on 30 hours childcare

A leading multi-academy trust has warned that disadvantaged children could be pushed out of free childcare, as schools convert nursery class places for working parents.

Ark, which runs 34 academy schools, warns that one of the ‘unintended consequences’ of the Government’s policy could be that quality early years education becomes less available to poorer communities, because only a small proportion of low-income families will be eligible for the extra hours for three- and four-year-olds.

The report by academy chain Ark, published today with the think-tank Education Policy Institute, formerly CentreForum, says that poorer families will be pushed out as schools ditch part-time places for full-time places for families that qualify for the 30-hours policy.

It points out that doubling the free entitlement from 15 to 30 hours for parents of three- and four-year-olds will have a significant impact on school-based providers, which have higher numbers of disadvantaged children than other providers.

Most schools do not have the capacity to expand and heads will also be put under pressure from families that do qualify for a full-time place to convert part-time-places to full-time places, leading to fewer children having access to school-based early years education, the report says.

It adds that the impact on schools will be felt by disadvantaged families alongside expected pressures from the 30-hour offer on private and voluntary providers, highlighted last week by the Public Accounts Committee's report. Settings in poorer areas are most likely to be threatened with closure due to operating under tighter margins and not being part of a chain, while nursery schools and children's centres are also under pressure.

Co-authors Baroness Sally Morgan, advisor to the Ark Board, and Jodie Reed, Ark’s head of early years development, said, ‘The new 30-hour entitlement for working families poses a risk that children from the poorest families will be squeezed out of the settings where they thrive most as schools convert part-time nursery class places to a much smaller number of full-time places, for which disadvantaged children will not qualify. Whilst well intended, this change could have a serious impact on the number of opportunities for disadvantaged children to have school-based early learning and childcare if not managed properly.’

Ark’s paper makes four main recommendations:

  • provide more targeted investment to all types of providers serving disadvantaged children;
  • encourage schools in disadvantaged areas to form deep partnerships with outside providers to help drive quality;
  • encourage and empower schools to maintain and extend the reach of their nursery classes
  • support strong schools and academy sponsors to deliver flexible, school-linked provision ‘beyond the school gate’.

Specific proposals that relate to all types of provider include increasing the Early Years Pupil Premium to bring it at least in line with the primary Pupil Premium; increasing funding for disadvantaged two-year old places in order to support graduate-quality care; ensuring the new Early Years Funding Formula does not reduce funding in disadvantaged areas.

It also makes proposals for driving forward a more school-led and school-linked system in disadvantaged areas, for example, providing schools with practical support to understand demand, significantly increased capital funding to extend nursery classes, and encouraging strong schools and academy chains to set up new early years social enterprises putting in place a strategy to enable strong schools and academy chains to take on the leadership of Children’s Centres and maintained nursery schools where needed.

Natalie Perera, executive director of the Education Policy Institute, said, ‘Today's report produced by Ark raises some important questions about the Government's approach to early years policy. We know that the gap between disadvantaged children and the rest already stands at over four months by the time children are age five, this makes Ark's consideration of how we can close this gap both timely and necessary.

‘The Education Policy Institute has already expressed concerns similar to those made by Ark today about the implication of the 30-hour free childcare offer on children from disadvantaged backgrounds. We hope that the Government considers these concerns as the policy is implemented.’

Beatrice Merrick, chief executive, Early Education, said, ‘This report asks timely questions about whether current policies are doing enough to improve the life chances of young children from disadvantaged background. We agree funding should be higher for this group - but only if that funding is tied to increased quality, as only high quality provision will close the gap. We also welcome calls for all parts of the early years sector to work together - but far from this meaning primary schools should provide leadership for maintained. nursery schools, as suggested in the report, the opposite is needed.

‘The greatest concentration of early years expertise is in the maintained nursery schools, and the rest of the sector - including primary schools- should be enabled to access that pedagogic leadership through further expansion of the early years teaching schools and embedding nursery schools at the heart of early years policy.’

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