'The link between the reforms and the roll-out of two-year-old places is not straightforward'

Ivonne Wollny
Thursday, March 7, 2013

What will be the impact of changes to ratios on Government plans to increase nursery places for disadvantaged two-year-olds? Ivonne Wollny of the Children and Young People Group at NatCen Social Research considers the evidence.

A lot has been going on recently in the world of childcare and early years education: first, the announcement of 15 free hours of early education to be extended to include disadvantaged two-year-olds and more recently, the Elizabeth Truss reforms, aiming to increase the number of children per adult and improve quality in the sector.

I work for NatCen Social research and we recently looked into the situation ‘on the ground’ in terms of childcare providers’ capacity for taking on disadvantaged two- year-olds, and what they thought would make the policy sink or swim.

On the face of it, the Truss reforms appear to directly support the success of the two-year-old policy. Relaxing ratios means more places for the now eligible two-year-olds.  Higher quality of staff directly address providers’ primary concern about the policy - while providers were overwhelmingly supportive and enthusiastic it was not without a caveat: if you want to place potentially vulnerable, disadvantaged children in childcare settings at just two years of age and achieve the desired benefits for them, you’ve got to provide high quality care.

Digging deeper, the link between the reforms and the rollout is not as straightforward as it seems. When we looked into childcare markets in disadvantaged areas, we found possible barriers to the success of the two year old roll out that the Truss reforms fail to address. For instance, we found that the childminders we spoke to had little interest in or capacity to take on more children. They often got less money from free entitlement places than from those of fee- paying parents.

Nurseries and pre-schools in disadvantaged areas were often very keen to take on two-year-olds - they relied on the free entitlement as they struggled to attract fee-paying parents in these low income/high unemployment areas.

However, these providers often said that capital funding was needed to make their premises suitable for two year olds, and revenue funding to bridge the gap between spending on getting ready to take on two-year-olds, and the funding arriving. There is no such funding available however for the roll-out of the policy and the providers in these areas simply did not have the money or financial buffers to do this by themselves.

Driving up of quality is great, everybody wants that. What we found, though, was that funding for training has been drying up, as well as local authority business and high quality support for providers. What’s more is that while the link between ratios and ‘quality’ is not definite, commonsense suggest that reducing the individual time and attention disadvantaged two-year-olds receive represents a lower quality of care for this group.

The childcare professionals we spoke to thought that a key part of improving the development of disadvantaged two-year-olds to match that of their more advantaged peers is the one-to-one support of skilled staff. Unsurprisingly, we’re seeing signature petitions emerge against the ratio relaxation.

So, questions remain about ‘how’ the reforms are going to work, and we know from our research that there are substantial barriers in our childcare markets to improving childcare for parents and children.

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