However, the maximum funded session length will remain at ten hours a day to protect children’s wellbeing and support a positive early education experience.
The plans are part of a Government consultation looking at the practicalities of extending childcare to 30 hours for three- and four-year-olds from September 2017, which asks childcare providers to consider how they might offer places more flexibly to meet the needs of working parents.
There is also a proposal to remove the two-and- half hour minimum requirement outside the hours of 9am and 3.30pm, and to increase the minimum session length to three hours between 9am and 3.30pm.
Current statutory guidance states that sessions should be no longer than ten hours or shorter than two-and-a half hours and should be offered between 7am and 7pm.
In the consultation put out today the Department for Education says that discussions it has had with parents have highlighted the need for more flexible childcare, such as early mornings or late evenings to cover different shift patterns.
A survey with parents carried out by the DfE last summer also found that the most useful type of flexible provision for parents would be to stretch their entitlement over the year, including term-time and school holidays.
The DfE is therefore also planning to stretch the funded hours across the year rather than term time only.
The Government is also planning on revising statutory guidance to make it clear that local authorities are expected to pay providers promptly for the funded hours and to encourage more of them to sign up to the Prompt Payment Code, which means that they pay invoices within a set deadline.
There are also plans to move towards national, standardised agreements between local authorities and providers.
Currently there are administrative burdens placed on providers, particularly, for example, large nursery groups that are working across more than 80 local authority areas.
The department therefore intends to include a model agreement in statutory guidance, setting out the themes to include in agreements between local authorities and providers, and making it clear that local authorities should not set out extra conditions on providers.
The consultation on the 30 hours also asks for views on how the ‘grace period’ for parents will operate, which is intended to allow parents to keep their childcare place for a short period if they have become ineligible for the offer, for example, if they are out of work for a short period of time.
For the first time local authorities will be managing a ‘grace period’ for childcare. Councils and childcare providers will need to make it clear to parents how the ‘grace period’ operates.
The DfE’s Eligibility Checking System will be changed so that local authorities will be able to check at key points such as the start of term, midway through the term, or quarterly, whether parents are still entitled to the 30 hours.
NDNA’s chief executive Purnima Tanuku, said, ‘NDNA has been very clear that the quality of early education in nurseries should not be compromised by offering more free hours.
‘While the key to this project is ensuring the right amount of funding gets to the nursery front line, we have also called for the practicalities of delivering funded places to work for nurseries, local authorities and parents.
‘We are pleased that the Government has acted upon our recommendations to look at establishing model agreements between the nurseries and local authorities to minimise bureaucracy.
‘The consultation also seeks to encourage prompt payment, something which NDNA has highlighted in successive survey reports.
‘It is vital all children can benefit from quality childcare so we welcome the focus on children with special educational needs and disabilities. However providers need the right support and funding to ensure their entitlement to funded places are fully accessible.’
Alongside the DfE consultation, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Cabinet Office are jointly carrying out a review on cutting red tape in the early years sector.
Ms Tanuku added, ‘We agree that reducing red tape for providers is a good thing but quality of early education must remain paramount.’
Commenting on the consultation, James Hempsall of Hempsall’s consultancy, said, ‘There is still a mismatch between childcare and work. Parents often need many more than 15 hours of free childcare, even to hold down a 16-hour job. Parents need other hours to prepare for work, and travel to and from it. Up to 30 hours of childcare will be a tremendous help for these families who will be able to work, afford childcare, and balance their caring responsibilities.
‘To achieve this from September 2017, needs careful consideration and planning. It needs further practical, strategic and operational action from Government, from local areas, and from early years and childcare providers.’
Liz Bayram, chief executive of PACEY, said, ‘It is great to see acknowledgement of the barriers that all early years settings, especially childminders and smaller group settings, face in delivering the free funded hours.
‘We welcome the proposals that aim to remove some of these challenges, including ensuring that local authorities pay providers promptly. At PACEY we have been raising these concerns for some time, so it good to see that Government has listened.
‘It is also good to see a strong emphasis on the vital role that childminders could play in delivering the free funded hours, and in particular in delivering the flexible provision which is central to the Government’s vision of its 30 hours policy.’
But she added that this ‘much needed offer for families will not be a reality unless fair levels of funding are made available to settings.’
Ms Bayram said, ‘The consultation reinforces the message that providers will still not be able to charge top-up fees to parents and that all settings, even those ‘requiring improvement’, can deliver this offer. PACEY is concerned this is a missed opportunity to allow these small businesses, operating on limited margins, to sustainably deliver the high quality service that children and families deserve. Government should be using EYE funding to incentivise settings to quality improve and should recognise that, with limits in place, top ups could make a significant difference between a setting delivering the free EYE sustainably or not.’
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance said that there appeared to be little consideration of the practicalities of the proposed changes.
'Moving to opening hours of 6am to 8pm would be a significant change for many early years providers and one that would likely result in a marked increase in wage, rental and utilities costs for group settings. What’s more, while the consultation document rightly recognises that childminders are a key source of quality, flexible early years provision, it fails to mention the fact that poor policy has a resulted in the sector losing 10,000 in the last four years.
'Quite simply, unless the Government provides the early years sector with the financial and practical support needed to offer an accessible, flexible and most importantly, high-quality service, it is making promises to parents that it will struggle to deliver.'
Mr Leitch also said that he was concerned 'that the Government’s primary focus now appears to be on "childcare" and getting parents back to work, rather than "early education", which supports children from all backgrounds to get the best possible start in life.
'The fact that most of the references to "early education" have been removed from draft local authority early years guidance speaks volumes, as does the fact that there is no reference to any attempt by government to explore what impact arriving at a childcare provision at 6am, or leaving at 8pm, might have on a child's wellbeing or early learning.'
- The 30-hour free childcare entitlement consultation closes on 6 June