The Public Accounts Committee report into the entitlement to free early years education and childcare said today that it would be ‘a grave mistake’ to extend the policy and calls for the Department for Education to respond swiftly to its concerns.
It cites reports from private and voluntary providers that gave evidence to the committee that the amount they currently get paid does not cover their costs and they therefore rely on charging parents for extra hours.
It says that there is a risk that providers will choose not to offer the extra hours because doing so will leave them unable to charge parents for hours outside of their entitlement.
It also says that this would affect families from disadvantaged areas the most, which is even more concerning given that the take-up of of free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds is ‘significantly lower’ than that of three- and four-year-olds.
The report recommends that 'Given the real risk that there will not be enough places' the DfE should use the pilots, which start in September, 'to test providers' capacity to meet the expected demand...and assess how feasible it is for providers to operate with the new funding rates'.
The committee also said that the DfE does not have 'robust plans' to ensure there are enough qualified early years staff so that providers can continue to offer high-quality childcare, and that there is no workforce plan for the sector.
It points out that providers are struggling to recruit high-quality staff and there has been a decline in applicants to graduate-level qualifications and recommends that the Department report to the committee by September on how it will make sure there are enough people with the right skills to work in the sector.
The report also says that the DfE does not have sufficient data to measure the impact of free childcare and urges it to report back by September 'on how it will measure the value for money of the current and new entitlement'.
Chair of the committee Meg Hillier said, ‘Government will soon trial the extension of free childcare and it must learn quickly from this experience if families are to properly benefit from the full roll-out.
‘Parents need to be able to access a sufficient number of providers, of sufficient quality. The Government must implement measures to assure this.
‘We are particularly concerned that the economic realities of providing childcare will deter providers from offering the extended provision.’
‘Evidence suggests this would most affect families from disadvantaged areas, which is doubly concerning given the already disappointing take-up of funded places for disadvantaged two-year-olds.
‘The Government must take responsibility for identifying the reasons for this and take remedial action.
‘This needs to be in tandem with tackling weaknesses in the current system, in particular obstructions to parents taking advantage of the help and services available.
‘It would be a grave mistake to extend this policy on shaky foundations and we expect the Department for Education to respond swiftly to the concerns set out in our report.
‘Taxpayers must be assured their money is being spent wisely and as a priority we urge the Government to explain exactly how it will measure value for money of the current and extended entitlement.’
Early years organisations agreed with the committee’s warning.
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, ‘The Public Accounts Committee is absolutely right to warn that there may not be enough providers willing to deliver the 30-hour free childcare offer next year if Government does not address the sector’s concerns. Add to this the fact that many providers simply do not have the capacity to deliver extra childcare places, and it is clear that, without urgent action, many parents who have been promised 30 hours of free childcare may not actually be able to access them next September.
‘The Committee warns that it would be a grave mistake to extend this policy on shaky foundations, and we couldn’t agree more. The pilots taking place this September are supposed to test the sector’s ability to deliver the offer, and yet not only has the DfE has admitted that there’s no guarantee that the funding approach used in the trials will actually be used in the full rollout of the scheme, but the Department has yet to confirm when - or even if - it will publish the pilot findings. We recognise that, as a manifesto promise, the Government is committed to rolling this offer out, but doing so in a rushed, chaotic way is not the answer. How many organisations have to raise these concerns before the government finally accepts that there’s a problem?’
Deborah Lawson, general secretary of Voice, the union for education professionals, said, ‘Childcare minister Sam Gyimah airily dismissed ongoing childcare funding issues as a "myth" when he addressed the PSLA conference the other day, but this latest report suggests that, as with teacher recruitment, the Government is in denial.
‘We need to remember that providers need staff, and that childcare’s greatest challenge is recruiting and retaining them.
‘The Government must address the question ‘What is childcare for?’ Is it to support and promote child development, or to support the economy by facilitating parental employment? It can only achieve either or both of these with appropriate investment and coherent pay and career structures to reflect and reward appropriately the professionals who work in childcare.’
She added. ‘It seems that the Government expects the early years sector to operate on minimum funding and maximum good will, but good will doesn’t pay the mortgage.
‘We await the promised workforce strategy with increasing frustration.’
The National Day Nurseries Association's chief executive Purnima Tanuku said, 'The average three- and four-year-old goes to nursery for 20 hours a week so there will be no additional hours for nurseries to cross-subsidise. A real consequence of this could be a sharp increase in fees for parents of under threes.
'Private, voluntary and independent nurseries make up the vast majority of providers for funded hours but our recent survey showed that only 45 per cent of nurseries said they were likely to offer 30 free hours. There is a real danger that unless nurseries are confident of receiving adequate funding for high-quality childcare, they won’t be persuaded to participate.'
The report points out that currently childminders provide 'a very small proportion' of the funded hours.
The Professional Association of Childcare and Early Years contributed its views on why so few childminders are providing the free hours.
Liz Bayram, chief executive of PACEY, said, 'Childminders are put off delivering funded hours because of poor fee levels and inadequate administration like all providers but also because their fees are often different to other settings; are reduced when their funded two year old children turn three (unlike a nursery, childminder ratios do not change for children under five) and because childminders still cannot claim the free entitlement for any related children they care for.
'PACEY is concerned the early implementation phase has placed too much reliance on the handful of childminder agencies that exist, despite continued childminder concerns around the agency approach. It is clear that urgent action is needed to address these challenges to ensure that working parents can benefit from the planned 30 hours of funded childcare from September next year.'
- Read the report here