4Children's Community Childcare and Early Learning Hubs are designed to create a new model of community childcare - a 'blended' offer, so that parents can access nursery and childminder support from one co-ordinated source.
Twenty-five hubs are now up and running, offering childcare through a range of providers, including local authorities, children's centres, schools and the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) settings.
Alongside consortium partners, including the Innovation Trust and Contact a Family, 4Children was initially granted two years' funding to develop the model with a grant of £750,000 through the Department for Education's (DfE) Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise (VCSE) grant programme in 2013-15.
The funding supported 16 community hubs over two years, and between nine and 12 are being recruited to develop over the next year.
The hubs are intended to encourage quality improvement, build the supply of childcare places and create a more 'blended' childcare offer, linking up daycare providers and childminders, to support parents' working patterns. The ultimate aim is to create a model that could be replicated in communities across the country. Providers are also encouraged to work more closely together.
In March, the DfE confirmed it would fund the project for a further year with a Voluntary and Community Sector (VCS) grant of £358,840. A one-year piece of work will also look at how hubs might be set up under a more arms-length support framework.
John Alwyine-Mosely, early years adviser at 4Children, who is leading the hubs project, said this year's grant would fund two areas of work: the continuation of the original offer and a new 'light touch' approach.
The new offer provides three days of training, a 'how to'
guide based on the experiences of the hubs from the past two years and telephone support, but no bespoke training (included for the original hubs).
All those taking part are Ofsted 'outstanding' settings and have to improve quality, supply of places and co-ordinate a 'blended childcare offer' - for example, a children's centre or school linking up with childminders.
Mr Alwyine-Mosely said, 'The reason it appealed to people was the variety of models.'
Evidence of the positive impact of hubs is already coming through.
An evaluation report carried out by OPM on behalf of the DfE, which has just been published, concluded, 'The greatest impact of the programme can be seen in the area of quality improvement.
'The impact of the programme on increasing the availability of blended childcare has been positive, but less pronounced.'
It also found 'some success' in increasing funded places for two-year-olds, concentrated in a small number of hubs.
Commenting on the research Mr Alwyine-Mosely said, 'Improving the quality of childcare was seen as a key winner. Creating a collaborative environment was very important, the fact that the school or nursery would sit down and talk to each other.'
Settings have visited each other to observe practice and taken part in peer mentoring.
Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centre, in Newham, east London, was the first fully operational hub in London to be set up, co-ordinating a network of eight PVI settings and 16 childminders.
Head teacher Julian Grenier said, 'The reason we joined the project wasn't for the grant funding but for the networking and professional opportunities. The support and professional development has really worked for us.'
Being in a hub has been 'highly beneficial', he said. For example, when looking at how early years settings could work more closely with the health visiting team a local conference was arranged with the Department of Health.
The hub uses a 'peer-learning' model where practitioners learn alongside each other. This has included Every Child A Talker, the early maths programme Maths Together and a quality improvement network with A + Education.
Dr Grenier said, 'Our team trained alongside practitioners. Learning together and the peer network has been a really important part of the model.'
Quality in settings has also improved. 'We've moved ahead in terms of Ofsted grades,' he said. 'We've seen a definite improvement in quality with all nursery settings rated "good" or "outstanding", which they weren't to start with.'
Childminder grades have also improved.
Sheringham Nursery School and Children's Centre only offers parents the 15 funded hours a week, but through the 'blended' childcare offer the centre is able to arrange for parents to have places with a childminder, before and after the nursery school.
'The "blended" places enable parents to have the mix of early education and childcare they want,' Dr Grenier said.
'It's easier for parents to get information about where places are available.
'They can contact us - they don't need to ring round lots of childminders. There's a childminder section on the website too.'
Case Study: Linaker children's centre
Linaker Children's Centre in Southport is a phase 1 children's centre that opened in 2006, offering health and family support. It also provides daycare for funded and non-funded places from 8am to 6pm at its 58-place nursery.
The centre was already working with local nurseries before it officially became a hub in the 4Children model eight months ago, but where once the centre's nursery provision might have been seen as a threat to PVI settings, close links have developed.
Children's centre manager Linda Caven said, 'Working between the children's centre and PVIs is much stronger.'
The centre has 11 PVI settings in its reach area. Each nursery has a family development worker attached to it to offer support with 'early help' for families, for example if a child is diagnosed with a disability or if there are family pressures.
'Families get support really early on if they're struggling, which reduces pressure on the nursery,' she said. 'We advertise all nurseries in our area and nurseries put up information about the centre's adult education and parenting classes and healthy eating courses.'
The hub has worked with the school readiness team at the local authority, which has helped with children's language development.
'We're not a particularly deprived area, but we found our children's understanding wasn't good.'
They trained PVIs, nursery classes and some Reception classes to use Wellcom, a tool used to assess children's development and that helped to identify any delay in language development. This has enabled staff to use interventions that will hopefully reduce the need for speech and language therapy.
'The majority of the children have made significant progress,' Ms Caven said.
'The hub has helped to break down barriers between the children's centre and early years settings and share good practice.'