Timings are a strange thing in government. If a department says a report, consultation, government response or the like is going to be released 'shortly', in reality, this could mean any time this year. If they say it will be published 'in the autumn', that could be anything between October and, say, March. And as for 'in due course'? Possibly this year, possibly next, possibly never.
We've had our fair share of policy-related delays in the early years, but with the ongoing political fallout from Brexit and the subsequent formation of what is essentially a brand new government, this is a more pressing issue that ever before.
The problem is that such uncertainty inevitably has a knock-on effect. So while we wait for the much-promoted life chances strategy, children's centres continue to go un-inspected. And while we wait for the promised early years workforce strategy, providers continue to struggle to recruit suitably-qualified staff.
But probably the most concerning area of uncertainty for the early years sector at the moment is the delay in the publication of the upcoming national early years funding formula consultation – a consultation that will detail plans for a wholesale reform of the way the sector is funded and that will ensure that maximum funding gets from central government to the front line. Or so the government has promised.
Speaking in a Westminster Hall debate earlier this month, childcare minister Sam Gyimah said that the consultation would be published 'imminently'. We can only hope that is actually the case. As it stands, early years providers are being asked to support the 30-hour scheme without having any clue how much funding they will receive from government, should they choose to offer it. How are they, or local authorities for that matter, expected to prepare for the scheme on this basis?
Back in June, a Department for Education (DfE) representative told the Public Accounts Committee at an evidence session that, when it came to the £50m in capital funding the government has promised the sector, private providers will, for the most part, be expected to 'raise their own capital'. And yet this simply isn't possible without information on funding rates.
John Pugh MP, a member of the committee summed the predicament up succinctly when he said, 'So I am going to my bank manager suggesting that I expand my premises to deal with this new demand, without any guarantees about the revenue funding I am going to get. It is quite a hazardous situation to be in if you are a provider, isn't it?'
And those providers who do benefit from capital funding from government are still likely to face this challenge, as the funding application rules state that even they have to source at least 25 per cent of overall capital funding from elsewhere.
Even the early implementer trials, which are supposed to provide us with a clear idea of what the scheme might look like next year, has been mired in confusion. Back in April, the DfE said that the eight local authorities taking part in the pilot would receive two separate funding rates from government – their existing rate, which would apply to the first 15 hours, and a new higher rate which would apply to the additional 15. This is despite the fact that back in November, childcare minister Sam Gyimah said during a Childcare Bill debate: 'Some members have asked whether the first 15 hours of provision will be different from the second 15 hours. We will pay the same rate for each.'
Following a backlash from providers and local authorities, particularly those in flagship pilot area York, Government backtracked, claiming that new data on provider costs had become available, and confirming that it would now fund the full 30 hours at one rate across the trials.
And yet, this doesn't actually mean that providers will get one consistent rate. Three of the pilot areas have since confirmed that, although they themselves will receive a single rate for the full 30 hours from the DfE, they will in fact be providing two separate funding rates to providers taking part in the trial. Confused? You're not alone.
There are so many questions to ask here. Will local authorities be able to choose to fund providers at two separate rates when the scheme rolls out in full next year? Why, if the government's review of the cost of delivering childcare was 'the most comprehensive analysis of the childcare market' to date, as the DfE has repeatedly claimed, did they initially get the trial funding rates so wrong? And how, given the full roll-out is just over a year away, will the government ensure that there is time to review and learn from the pilots before next September? When the Public Accounts Committee asked representatives from the DfE about this, their response was: we don't know.
Similarly, the government continues to fail to answer the very valid questions the sector has about capacity and the 30 hour offer. In that recent Westminster Hall debate, the childcare minister once again rejected concerns about the lack of capacity for the 30 hour offer, arguing that, 'The truth is a lot of parents already take more than the free 15 hours of childcare ... We are therefore not necessarily increasing the demand, but extending the entitlement'.
It's an argument that he has made several times before, most recently at the Alliance annual conference in June, when he said that concerns around capacity (alongside those on funding and the early implementer scheme) were based on 'myths'. And yet it is the DfE's own figures that show that on average, parents of three- and four-year-olds take 18 hours of formal childcare a week, not 30. But rather than trying to work out where those extra 12 hours are going to come from, the government continues to pretend that there is no problem.
This is even more of a concern when you realise that estimates on the total number of families in England likely to be eligible for the extended offer have been, like the government's data on provider costs, based on completely out-of-date figures – including two surveys, on family resources and personal incomes respectively, from 2012/2013. How is this a solid basis from which to work?
There's no doubt that this is a time of unprecedented political change. We have a new prime minister, a new education secretary and there is every possibility that over the next few days, we may have a new childcare minister. But none of this changes the fact that the 30-hour offer is scheduled to roll-out in little more than a year, and that both providers and local authorities still need to be able to prepare if they are to fulfil a promise that government chose to make to parents. I don't know about you but I don't think that a bit of information to allow us to try to do so is too much to ask for.