In some ways, the last few months have been both the best and worst of times for the early years sector when it comes to the fight for fairer funding.
The best because finally, after years of being unfairly tarred with 'greedy provider' brush, the media, politicians and the general public are starting to realise just how difficult a situation nurseries, pre-schools and childminders across the country have been put in by government.
And the worst because, despite this, we've continued to watch provider after provider forced to close their doors because they simply could not make their businesses work on the funding that government was willing to give them.
This is not a new fight, but it is one that has become all the more urgent as a result of the 30 hours policy. So what do we do about it? And how do we bring about change when there's still disagreement on what that change should be?
There are those who argue that the government should be honest and admit that so-called 'free entitlement' offer isn't free at all, and call it what it is: subsidised. There are others that are happy for the government to call the offer free but want current rules changed to allow providers to make charges for additional good and services, such as meals, trips and nappies, compulsory.
At the Alliance, we have always been clear that our call is for adequate funding, supported by better, more detailed cost data for different business models. We know from our conversations with both the Department for Education and Number 10 that the government U-turning on its flagship manifesto pledge for working families simply isn't currently an option – unsurprising, given all other major political parties are currently promoting their own 'free childcare' offers.
And while we recognise that allowing providers to charge top-ups or compulsory fees would undoubtedly help take at least some financial strain off providers – especially for those whose parents are willing and able to do so – our concern has always been the impact that this would have families at the lower end of the income scale, many of whose children would arguably benefit the most from the care and education that the sector provides.
We have always said that all children, regardless of background, should have equal access to quality early years provision and while, as a provider of childcare ourselves – and one that operates primarily in areas of deprivation – the Alliance has first-hand experience of the challenges facing the sector, I have to say that I would feel incredibly uneasy pushing for any policy solutions likely to entrench a two-tier childcare system where richer parents get their pick of places at the highest quality provision, while poor families are left at the bottom of the pile, and providers are forced to choose between what they feel is morally right, and what is financially sustainable.
And I'm even more uncomfortable with the idea of supporting solutions that focus on providers charging through the back door, and allow the government to continue to claim they are providing 'free' childcare while placing the blame once again on those 'greedy providers'.
But while in an ideal world, everyone in the sector would share the same views and campaign on the same basis, in reality, different perspectives and experiences shape different views and so as a sector, we need to focus on what we do agree on, where we can work together and what we can change.
As it stands, the government is still claiming that there is no problem with early years funding. It maintains that providers are being paid more than enough to deliver funded places, that the big chains are offering the 30 hours without issue, and that the 30-hour pilots prove that the scheme will work well – even though all these arguments are flimsy at best, and downright inaccurate at worst.
So if we are to make any progress in getting government to rethink the 30 hours policy, we first – and it seems an obvious point to make, but it's an important one – need to get the Department for Education to actually accept that there is a problem. And this means, not only getting the sector's voice heard via the press, petitions and the like – but also through Parliament.
Over recent weeks, the Alliance has attended two Parliamentary events – one lobby eventing hosted by shadow early years minister Tracy Brabin, and one meeting of the APPG for Childcare and Early Education, a cross-sector initiative of which the Alliance is a founding sponsor – where providers have been able to put their concerns about the 30 hour offer (and more specifically, the impact of underfunding) directly to the government. We've sat in a Westminster Hall debate and watched around a dozen MPs explaining, clearly and comprehensively, the impact that the lack of adequate government funding is having on providers and parents in their respective constituencies.
Earlier in the year, there was a House of Commons debate on 'free childcare' in September – and before that, another in July. Over the past six months, there have been around 100 parliamentary questions on the 30 hours. Make no mistake about it: the potential failure of a flagship government policy is no small thing in Westminster. And that's something we need to make the most of.
At the recent APPG meeting, although the children and families minister continued to argue that the 30-hour scheme was an overwhelmingly positive policy, he also asked for more details on which business costs were contributing to providers' inability to offer 30 hours places sustainably on current funding levels. Of course, you may well feel that this is very little, and very late – and understandably so. The government had its opportunity to obtain detailed cost data from the sector back in 2015 when it conducted its cost of childcare review, and it's had plenty of opportunities since.
And we know that many, many providers have written to the DfE already to explain why they simply can't make the offer work on current funding rates. But a public acknowledgement that perhaps, just perhaps, everything isn't fine after all is progress, painfully slow though it might be. And I've no doubt that the continued pressure from the sector via Parliament has contributed to this.
That's why we at the Alliance are encouraging all providers to write to their local MPs and ensure that they are raising the issue in government. We know from personal experience that while some MPs are more supportive than others, many will be willing to demand answers from government on this policy if they feel it's a significant local issue. And so we want as many MPs as possible writing to the government about this issue, contributing to debates about this issue, and attending meetings of the childcare and early education APPG on this issue. Because fixing the problems that the 30 hours policy has caused is no small task – and so we as a sector should welcome all the help we can get.
- The Alliance's Fair Future Funding campaign is calling for government to ensure that early years funding covers the rising cost of delivering funding place. To join the campaign, download a template MP letter or view the 30-hours mythbuster, visit www.pre-school.org.uk/fairfuturefunding.