Speaking at the Family and Childcare Trust’s Westminster Briefing event yesterday (December 12), children’s minister Elizabeth Truss re-iterated her Government’s commitment to increase childcare capacity, drive up quality and provide affordability.
She said, ‘Any good or outstanding nursery will be able to access money [for the free entitlement] – just like childminders – without jumping through bureaucratic hoops – and we estimate about 80 per cent of nurseries will automatically get funding.’
She outlined the intention to replace a patchwork of local quality and registration requirements, with single, national quality and registration standards – ‘So that expansion across more than one authority is easier.’
She added, ‘It means that local authorities can focus on encouraging the best providers to their area, and support the weakest providers,’ she said.
‘CHILDREN’S CENTRES ARE THRIVING’
Ms Truss emphasised that the future for children’s centres lies in providing integrated health services and ensuring that services are available to all families.
She said, ‘Just to be clear, they provide one per cent of all daycare places – compare that to school-based childcare, which is 30 per cent, and it is a much smaller number.
‘They are an important part of the support we provide for children and families. But that support is primarily about pre-natal, post-natal care, parenting classes, stay and play, providing support and networks for those parents.
‘The DCLG has announced a fund, which local authorities can bid for, to make sure services suit parents – so that parents can find all the services in one place, for example, by sharing sites – rather than having to travel from service to service. We all know how important that sort of local, accessible service is.
She added, ‘There is a rumour that hundreds are closing. It’s not true. Figures from local authorities tell us tell us that about one per cent of the total number have closed since 2010 – and a few have opened too. And we know from 4Chidren that one million parents are using them – so they are thriving.’
TWO-YEAR-OLDS IN SCHOOLS
Ms Truss took the opportunity to say that she agreed with Baroness Sally Morgan’s view that schools should start offering places for twos.
She outlined that 375 schools now offer funded nursery places for two-year-olds.
‘I agree with Sally. And we are helping 50 schools trial places for two-year-olds, in on-site nurseries,’ she said.
‘Because, as Sally said, by the time they start school, poorer children have already fallen the equivalent of 19 months behind their more affluent peers.
‘I want to make it absolutely clear that these children aren’t sitting at desks studying trigonometry.’
Ms Truss re-iterated her commitment to childminder agencies.
‘Since September, any good or outstanding childminder can automatically offer funded places for two to four-year-olds. Fewer than 4,000 childminders were accessing funding. Now 32,000 are automatically eligible.’
She went on to say that part of the aim of agencies was to make setting up as a childminder easier.
‘Childminders have to register with Ofsted. They have to spend about £80 on a medical check. About £100 on a pre-registration course. Ubout £100 for paediatric first aid training. Public liability, car and home insurance, professional membership, DBS checks, books , creating a website, sorting marketing and accounting – and I could go on. It’s a lot of money and we estimate at least £800 – and a lot of time.’
‘If childminders want to join an agency – and it is completely optional – then they will benefit from that shared invoicing, marketing and training support too.’
Speaking later in the day, independent consultant Sue Owen, said that in the past childminder networks had worked very well.
‘I wonder why we are bothering with agencies, but at the same time anything new that comes along for the sector is worth looking at.
‘The problem is that there is no funding for agencies whereas networks received this. What we need to do is find ways of using available funding more innovatively.’
Ms Owen agreed with one delegate, who pointed out that childminders faced real sustainability issues with funding for the free entitlement, when funding reduced from the rate for two-year-olds to that for three- and four-year-olds.
A pledge to share the sector’s aspirations and take responsibility for engaging with the challenges has been made by Shadow children’s minister Lucy Powell.
Making her first keynote speech, Ms Powell outlined that her party’s proposal to extend free childcare from 15 to 25 hours is a ‘real offer that will help parents make informed choices about going back to work’.
‘Second earners, for the first time will be able to go back to work to work part-time without having to worry about childcare costs,’ she said. ‘This extra childcare provision for working mums and dads is worth £1,500 per year per child and is on top of Government plans for tax free childcare.’
She highlighted that under the current Government childcare costs have risen by 30 per cent since the election with nursery bills rising five times faster than wages.
‘Early years places have fallen by 35,000 since 2009 and we know that there are still gaps in local childcare for families, particularly disabled children and families working atypical hours. This is damaging local economies and trapping parents who want to work from home.’
On the subject of tax free childcare, she said, ‘While we welcome any investment in chidcare, it will do little for costs, as the IPPR has shown recently, and it is too little too late.’