Opinion: Editor's view

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None of the election contenders is clear on these funding issues

With so little time left until polling day, nursery education funding grabbed the headlines this week as the Conservatives promised to suspend the code of practice and allow childcare providers to charge top-up fees (see News, page 4).

Labour and the Liberal Democrats promptly restated their opposition to any such move, as it would penalise less well-off parents in particular.

It is undeniable that the free entitlement is of huge importance to families and could well have an influence on voting intentions. But it is equally true that difficulties with reconciling the extended hours and the Early Years Single Funding Formula with the sustainability of providers are mounting.

Daycare Trust chief executive Alison Garnham was quoted on Sunday in the Observer as saying, 'The free entitlement plays a vital role in improving child outcomes, and the needs of children and families should come before the needs of the childcare industry.'

The problem with this, however, is that underfunding the entitlement can lead to nurseries and pre-schools going out of business, which will mean a shortage of places; or it can end up driving quality down; or providers in well-off areas will pull out because their parents will pay - so we get a two-tier system anyway.

Add in the plight of nursery schools in many areas of the country, with some beacons of best practice likely to be extinguished, and the result is a laudable policy teetering on the brink of disaster.

And as our Election Special (page 10-13) shows, none of the three main parties is very clear on how this fundamental and universal access to early years education will get the funding it needs.

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