Speaking at the Daycare Trust conference, the children’s minister said, ‘I want to limit the burdens on children’s centres to make them responsive to local need. At the moment it doesn’t make sense to make all children’s centres offer full daycare in disadvantaged areas, if there is not the take-up to make use of it.’
Ms Teather also said that the Government intended to legislate, to have a guarantee for disadvantaged two-year-olds to have the free entitlement for 15 hours ‘on the statute book by 2013’.
Responding to the announcements, Anne Longfield, chief Executive of 4Children, said, ‘We warmly welcome free childcare for deprived two-year-olds year olds being placed on a statutory footing. All the evidence shows that getting children off to a good start in life has the biggest impact on their life chances.’
But she added, ‘However, we have serious concerns about how parents will access this free childcare if children’s centres are no longer expected to provide nurseries. In many deprived areas children’s centres provide some of the only high quality, full time, childcare. If we are going to help parents off welfare and into work, as the Government says it wants to do, then childcare is vital.
‘Our experience of running centres in disadvantaged areas shows that there is significant demand for childcare places if they are offered in a flexible way that meets parents’ needs.’
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association said it was critical to balance the sustainability and viability of full daycare in deprived areas, with ensuring that families were supported to work and train.‘Access to high-quality care and early learning is vital for children from less advantaged backgrounds, but equally providing full daycare in such areas may not be sustainable due to the need to offer it at lower than market rates or the fact that parents may be likely to only take up free entitlement sessions,' she said.
‘Local authorities will still have sufficiency duties and before any decisions are made local authorities need to undertake a robust sufficiency assessment looking at the needs of local families. Alternative models such as inviting local provision to tender to provide services should also be considered.'
'More freedom for centres'
During her keynote speech Ms Teather also said that the Government wanted to prioritise child development and focus on early intervention, with funding for Sure Start through early intervention grants.
She said she wanted much more ‘flexible and diverse’ children’s centres and more involvement from the voluntary sector.
She added, ‘That’s why I also announce today that we’re going to use the Localism Bill to try and drive forward that change, so that voluntary sector organisations can challenge local authorities to put services out to tender, so that voluntary sector organisations might be much more involved in running centres.’
Expanding on the thinking behind the announcements during a question and answer session, Ms Teather said that the Government wanted to give local authorities more freedom to respond to their local communities, so that if the demand was not there for childcare, centres could use their budgets, for example, to prioritise parenting programmes or speech and language therapy.
She told delegates, ‘We’re trying to have a different relationship with local government where we focus on outcomes. We’re going to pilot payment by results so that we can drive that process forward.’
But she said that central Government would no longer tell local authorities what to do to reach the ‘hard-to reach groups’ in their local area.
She added, ‘We’re not going to measure how many families have been through your system anymore, but we want to know what you’ve done with them and how you’ve made a difference.’
The children’s minister was also asked for clarification about the early intervention grant and Sure Start funding.
Ms Teather said she would try to make sure that the announcement would come in advance of the local government spending settlement.
‘I can say that the early intervention grant includes money for Sure Start, it includes money for youth, it includes money around family intervention as well. We’re trying to free-up local government to make flexible decisions, so we’re trying to remove as many ringfences as we can across Government, so that local government can prioritise that.’
One private nursery owner said that he was very concerned about the level of free entitlement funding, which in his case only covered 50 per cent of the costs of providing it in his nurseries. He said that many nurseries faced going bankrupt or would have to opt out of the funding, leading to a two-tier system.
The children’s minister said she was aware of private sector concerns about free entitlement funding in certain areas of the country, but wanted to wait for the single funding formula 'to bed in' before deciding about the way forward.