Exclusive interview with Childcare Minister Sam Gyimah: France, funding and the 30 hours

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With the Childcare Bill for the 30 hours in the Commons and rising costs causing concern in early years, Ruth Thomson speaks to Sam Gyimah about what the sector can expect looking ahead.

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The Childcare Bill introducing the 30-hour free entitlement for three- and four-year-olds of working parents is now back in the Commons after facing criticisms in the House of Lords about its lack of detail on costing and implementation.

The criticisms have only added to sector concerns about final funding allocations for a scheme that will be introduced at a time of rising staff costs for providers (see box).

Childcare minister Sam Gyimah met with Nursery World following his visit to France to discuss Government objectives under the scheme and the timetable to implementation.


Can you tell me why you went to France?

Our manifesto pledge of 30 hours free childcare for working parents of three- and four-year-olds is a big commitment, and it's a high-profile commitment for the Government. In order that I get this commitment right, I am engaging with lots of different aspects of childcare provision, in the UK and abroad.

Here in the UK we've launched a funding review and we've had the call for evidence from providers. We've also engaged with parents on social media and 20,000 have engaged with our survey on Facebook.

In France, they have an ambitious programme to expand childcare and they're very much focused on disadvantage and the take-up of childcare by disadvantaged families, as we are in the UK with the twos offer.

While I was there I met with the OECD's Andreas Schleicher, who is an expert on early years education, to discuss findings from around the world on driving up standards and ensuring quality outcomes.

I also looked at the nature of employer involvement in childcare, partly triggered by some of the meetings we've been having here. We've done employer engagements with the likes of BT and Rolls-Royce where we spoke to employees about their childcare challenges.

France is not the only international example that we are looking at. We've discussed New Zealand, for example, where they didn't get changes to their systems right first time because of the speed of implementation.

I am looking at Scotland because they are offering quite a lot of free hours already, and at Holland, where they've been through a number of changes over the years in terms of how childcare is delivered.

I saw a whole range of settings in France. I saw settings that had a social project that contributes to the community at large, settings that worked very closely with employers to ensure that the hours that were offered fitted with the employees, and settings that worked very well in helping people get to work.

The intention was to look at their approach rather than to cherry-pick policies to implement here, as in France the market is state-controlled, state-funded and state-planned while here, of course, we have a mixed economy of providers.

Can you reassure the sector that the policy will be properly funded and that quantity will not come at the expense of quality as the Government tries to help more parents into work?

Of course, one of the objectives of the 30-hour policy is to enable parents to work more hours. If parents can work more hours it means they can fulfil their aspirations for their family.

The other objective of all our childcare policies is to ensure that we help children get the high-quality education that they need because we know that this makes a huge difference, particularly for disadvantaged children, and it means that they do not start school already behind. And the third objective is to help parents with the cost of living.

If you look at the last Parliament, I don't agree that we've traded off quantity against quality. We've raised the bar on quality, for example, by requiring all Level 3 to have the right literacy and numeracy on exit and by tightening the Ofsted inspection framework. If you look at the early years Profile results and the number of settings that are 'good' or 'outstanding', you can see since 2010 an expansion in childcare without any diminishing quality, as some people would like to suggest.

I am confident that we will deliver on our manifesto pledge. Most important is establishing what the actual cost of providing childcare is. Until you analyse what the cost of providing childcare is by type of provider in different parts of the country, talk of a rate is just theoretical. You need to understand what that cost is.

One thing I know is that when we looked at our numbers we took into account that the fact that some people with Tax-Free Childcare will now get the 30 hours entitlement and the same would apply for the Tax Credit elements. So, probably that's why there are different costings.

I understand that a lot of providers will potentially have the Government buying a lot of their hours and, of course, they want to make sure they're getting the right rate. I understand sector concerns about the move to a national living wage, but that is all part of what we will be looking at in the context of the funding review, and the Spending Review, that the Chancellor will be coming up with later in November.

Can you give any indication on numbers and capacity, given some estimates are up to 630,000 places?

I don't recognise the 630,000 places. The reason why we are having a very detailed funding review of the cost of providing childcare, which has never been done before, by the way, is to specifically look at these figures.

A huge number of people who buy more than 15 hours already will continue to buy more than 15 hours. What will change is that where before they paid for these hours themselves, the Government will now be paying for the additional hours. So, I think there is a lot of scaremongering around the new number of places, or people are not understanding that we are doubling entitlement but not doubling demand.

The reason the question of take-up and capacity is not a straightforward one to answer is that it depends on where you are in the country. There might be a capacity need in some areas but an oversupply in others, and you have different types of provider dominant in different parts of the country.

I've seen a lot of back-of-the-envelope figures, but the right way to do it is what we're doing, which is to look at it this on a geographic basis and to understand the picture exactly as it is in every part of the country, rather than doing a generic piece of analysis which actually will not answer the question.

And what about implementation?

We are on track to have early implementation in autumn next year. More than 600 providers and local authorities have contacted us wanting to be part of early implementation, which I find incredibly encouraging, because it highlights that actually there is a lot of positive sentiment, not just from parents, but also from providers about getting the 30 hours right and our view is that we'll go to full implementation in 2017.

Two examples where some sort of innovation could be interesting to make it really work for parents, and for providers, is special educational needs provision, and how the hours are taken.

A lot of parents asked whether the hours are for 38 weeks of the year or could be spread it throughout the year. We need to look at that.

How is the DfE responding to the House of Lords criticisms of the Childcare Bill's lack of detail?

We've published a very detailed policy statement responding to concerns, and valid criticisms are addressed in that document.

Proper scrutiny in Parliament is fine, but opposition politicians using political tactics to frustrate policy that they then say in interview they support I find deeply frustrating, as the people we let down are working parents who've heard politicians make this commitment, heard opposition politicians say they support it and then wonder why it hasn't happened.

What I would want to see from Labour and all other opposition parties is that if they want to support working parents in this that they vote for the bill.


30-HOUR FREE ENTITLEMENT: CONTEXT

The 30-hour free entitlement is part of the Government strategy to cut the welfare budget by £12bn and help more parents back into work, or to work for longer hours.

Family income

- Tax credits and family benefits under Universal Credit will be limited to the first two children (affecting 870,000 families).

- From April 2017, parents will be expected to 'prepare' for work when their youngest child is two years old and to look for work when the child is three.

- Tax-Free Childcare will replace the existing Childcare Voucher Scheme in early 2017. For eligible families, it will cover 20 per cent of childcare costs (up to £2,000 per child, per year), for children up to the age of 12.

The 30-hours entitlement

- The offer is open only to working families where all parents work from eight hours a week.

- Some 89 per cent of the 19,300 respondents to a DfE survey said they would take up the extra hours. Most expected to use 14 hours of the additional entitlement and wanted the offer to be stretched across the year.

- The Government estimates some 600,000 families will benefit.

- An extra 630,000 15-hour places will be needed, according to CEEDA.

- An implementation taskforce is being led by childcare minister Sam Gyimah, from the DfE, and employment minister Priti Patel at the Department of Work and Pensions.

- A pilot phase will start in September 2016, and full implementation in April 2017.

- Childcare Bill: policy statement, responding to House of Lords criticism of the lack of detail on the initiative, is at www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/465446/Childcare_Bill_Policy_statement.pdf.

Cost, funding and shortfall

- The scheme will be financed by about £350m from savings on tax allowances on pension contributions and topped up with savings from changes to Tax Credits and the introduction of Tax-free Childcare.

- These figures are well below CEEDA and IPPR projections of some £1.5bn. See www.ippr.org/publications/ extending-the-early-years-entitlement-costings-concerns-and-alternatives and www.nurseryworld.co.uk/nursery-world/news/1151154/exclusive-analysis-uncovers-true-cost-of-party-childcare-pledges

- A DfE funding review is underway to assess the true cost of delivering all 'free' entitlement childcare - the Pre-School Learning Alliance estimates the current shortfall is £177m. This funding review will feed into the spending review to be announced in late November.

- Implementation will coincide with the introduction of the 'national living wage' (from next April), higher employer pension contributions and an apprenticeship levy.

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