According to the Department for Education, 92,000 of the 130,000 disadvantaged eligible two-year-olds, the equivalent of 70 per cent, have so far taken up the offer, leaving 38,000 available places.
Under the scheme, which was introduced in September, eligible two-year-olds receive 570 hours per year or 15 hours per week of funded early education, which they can take up at any early years setting rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. From next September (2014), the number of two-year-old places will increase to 260,000.
Presenting the figures, the education and childcare minister Elizabeth Truss called on local authorities to pass on the full amount of funding to providers to ensure as many children as possible can access the places.
James Hempsall, director of Hempsall’s, which with Mott Macdonald is supporting the implementation of the two-year-olds programme, said, ‘The number of eligible families presenting themselves to local authorities is growing all the time, at a rate of tens of thousands.
‘Many local authorities are adopting the 2014 criteria early so that even more families can benefit. This will mean that by next September more than double the amount of children will be using their places, more than 200,000. This is great news.’
While early years organisations have recognised that the figures are a step in the right direction, they have warned that more needs to be done for the scheme to continue to be successful.
The National Day Nurseries Association’s (NDNA) chief executive Purnima Tanuku has said that a ‘sound note of caution’ is needed when it comes to funding the free early education places for two-year-olds.
She explained, ‘At the moment, providers are working within a system that is not fit for purpose. In NDNA’s Spring Business Performance Survey, 50 per cent of nurseries said the funding provided by local authorities does not cover the cost of the place, ultimately making it unsustainable long term.
‘It is essential local authorities take the minister’s comments on board and all parties work together to ensure there is funding and places available for as many children as possible.
The Pre-School Learning Alliance (PLA) raised the same concern. Neil Leitch, chief executive of the PLA said, ‘At a time when many providers are still underfunded for the three- and four-year-old scheme, it is vital that the Government ensures that the two-year-old places are adequately funded.’
In the past, providers have raised fears that the existing levels of funding they receive through local authorities for the two-year-old entitlement will reduce when the programme expands beyond 2014.
After 2015, local authorities will be funded on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis, with money being withdrawn where children are not taking up the places.
Another challenge, claims the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY), is obtaining funding. According to PACEY, childminders are struggling to access funding to deliver the places, which some believe could be because local authorities prefer nurseries to provide places.
A breakdown of figures, by local authority, will be published by the Department for Education next year.
A lack of good and outstanding early years settings to provide the places for the disadvantaged two-year-olds continues to be an issue. Pat Broadhead, professor Emeritus at Leeds Metropolitan University, has raised this concern in Sheffield after the city council withdrew funding from 20 community nurseries in the most deprived areas of the city.
Ms Broadhead, who campaigned with others to prevent the council from removing the funding in July, said, ‘We failed in our campaign and many of these settings have now closed or struggle to survive. Many were good or outstanding. They were well established and trusted by low-income families.
‘The council’s view was that the families could access private settings, but private providers had not established themselves in these communities for several reasons. So where are these two-year-olds going? How are they accessing their entitlement? I doubt that many of them are. Forming trusting relationships takes time, and many available settings will be some distance from the families and virtually inaccessible.’
Sheffield City Council also proposed closing some of its children’s centres because of Government cuts to its budget, with many other local authorities following suit.
Nursery World contacted a number of local authorities about the take up of their two-year-old places. None were able to provide a comment.
Since the magazine went to press, Nursery World has received a comment from Bradford Metropolitan District Council.
George McQueen, Bradford council’s assistant director for access and inclusion, said, 'The aim of Bradford’s place development strategy is to ensure at least 80% of the district’s eligible two-year-olds will be able to access a childcare place in September 2014.
'The Council held a number of events with providers in January 2013 to publicise the need for expansion in target areas. Schools, children’s centres and private and voluntary sector childcare providers were invited to express interest in developing two-year-old capacity. Capital funding has been awarded to 21 schemes which are developing places in areas of need.
'We are also exploring other options, including the expansions of existing provision and developing low-cost projects in areas of need, such pre-school provision.
'At present there are 252 early education providers who are offering funded places across the district. These are with a wide variety of settings including childminders, pre-schools, day nurseries and some schools and children centres with onsite childcare.
'Intensive development work in three areas of the city continues to be undertaken in areas of projected shortage. A 'soft market test' is being undertaken to gauge possible procurement options.
'In September 2013, 2,162 places were being delivered across the district. Of these places 60% were taken up by of children who are eligible under the free school meals criteria. The remaining 40% of places were taken up with families on the Working Tax Credit (those with a household income of less than £16,190 a year).'
4Children’s Children’s Centre Census 2013 warns that the Government must ensure that funding cuts do not undermine centres’ capacity to deliver the two-year-old places. The census estimated that 60 centres could close over the next 12 months due to ‘acute financial pressures’ placed on local authorities.
The cuts come at a time when, according to the census, for the first time more than a million families are using their local centre, including 320,000 disadvantaged families.
Another worry is that because of a lack of high-quality settings to deliver the places, two-year-olds will be pushed into schools, which Nancy Stewart, principal consultant at the Early Learning Consultancy, says would be ‘wholly inappropriate’ for children of this age (see p14).
At the beginning of the month, Baroness Sally Morgan, chairwoman of Ofsted, said that disadvantaged two-year-olds should be enrolled in school nurseries to improve their chances.
Worries have also been raised that in areas where are not enough providers, local authorities will have to use those judged as ‘requires improvement’.
Liz Bayram, chief executive of PACEY, said, ‘ PACEY has consistently argued that the ability to deliver the free entitlement should be limited to good-quality providers to ensure that vulnerable children are getting the best possible care.’
Another concern raised by the sector is the extra pressure that providing the two-year-old places for disadvantaged children could place on early years settings.
Neil Leitch of the PLA said, ‘Two-year-olds have very different needs to three- and four-year-olds. This requires extra time and support.
‘The Government has stressed the need for funded places to be provided by good or outstanding providers, but recent changes to the role of the local authority means that it is these very providers who may no longer receive the practical support, advice and training they need. ‘
He added, ‘While the latest take-up is extremely positive, we need to ensure that there is a long-term strategy of continuous support in place to ensure that all participating providers are able to offer high-quality, appropriate care and education.’
CASE STUDY: St Albans
Home From Home Nursery in St Albans has been delivering the two-year-old funded places since April 2012 and currently cares for two children under the scheme.
Owner Linda Collins, who is also the National Day Nurseries Association’s networking chair
for Hertfordshire, said, ‘We are based in an affluent area and are therefore one of the few settings near St Albans town to be offering the places for disadvantaged two-year-olds. Lots of providers run small settings and are worried about the implications of providing the places.
‘The two-year-old places is early intervention in its truest sense as it sets these disadvantaged children up for a successful future.
‘There are financial hurdles. If I’m honest, our full-fee parents do prop up the funded places. It’s also difficult balancing the books providing the two-year-old places
if you are paying your staff a good wage and want highly qualified practitioners.’
Ms Collins says that another challenge is providing cover for staff that have to spend time
outside of the setting attending meetings, speech therapy or home visits for the disadvantaged children that have complex needs.
She added, ‘Providing the places is not for the faint-hearted, but I think it’s the way forward.’