The myth of affordability

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'Affordable Childcare': it's the soundbite on every childcare minister's lips.

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Sue Cowley

But when I'm sat sweating over pre-school cashflow, desperately trying to make income match expenditure, these words have a hollow ring to them. Politicians might try to woo parent voters by offering them ever more 'free' childcare hours, but in reality these
hours are not free to provide. Instead, the entitlement is subsidised by settings, by staff, by parents, by fundraising, by volunteers.

I find it astonishing when announcements of more free hours are made, without anyone consulting the early years sector. Because the key question no politician asks is this: 'Can settings actually afford to increase the funded hours they offer?'

Running costs are increasing, and yet it is countless years since the hourly funding rate went up. We are paid a frankly pitiful £3.51 per child, per hour. Even if we were willing to use a ratio of one adult to 13 children, the hourly rate would still not be enough to cover our costs over the course of the year. A vital point that politicians miss (or conveniently ignore) is that children do not arrive at an early years setting in one neat bundle, like they do in a school Reception class. In September, the oldest children from the previous year have gone to school, and our child numbers drop to their lowest point. Funding must cover salaries during this lean period, as well as in the summer when numbers are higher.

There are only a handful of ways to make childcare more 'affordable': you can increase the ratios, you can rely on fundraising and volunteers to close the gap, or you can pay very low salaries. In recent years, politicians have repeatedly tried to get early years settings to increase ratios. Settings and practitioners have responded with a very firm 'no thank you'.

You can only go so far in expanding the sector through the use of fundraising and volunteers - we are in perpetually short supply. And so it is that low salaries remain a permanent feature of the sector. It is a source of embarrassment to me that we pay our wonderful graduate leader less per hour than I pay the guy who mows my lawn. And it should be a source of shame for Government that it is hard working, dedicated practitioners who pay the price for 'Affordable Childcare'.

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