04 Mar 2019, Catherine Gaunt
The Government’s flagship childcare policy, 30 hours’ free childcare, has been up and running for over a year. The media debate about the policy has focused largely on the funding shortfall reported by many childcare providers and the difficulties some parents have faced with the registration process. The question of who is most and least likely to benefit from the policy has received less attention.
The national evaluation of the 30 hours’ free childcare has shown that less advantaged children are least likely to access the extended entitlement, and among those are children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). This also remains the case for the universal 15 hours, and we are concerned that the targeted offer of extended hours is likely to widen even further the gap between the early education opportunities available to SEND children compared with their peers.
The evaluation found that only five per cent of children taking up the extended hours have additional needs. This is partly because their parents are less likely to be in paid employment. However, the evaluation shows that even families who are eligible for extended hours can face considerable barriers in accessing local provision. For example, a mother interviewed for the evaluation, whose child had an Education, Care and Health plan, was told by her nursery that her daughter could not have the extended hours because the plan only provided extra support for the 15 universal hours.
Another mother was told by the nursery that extended hours were not suitable for her child because of his speech delay, and they were not able to offer, even on a trial basis, some of the additional hours the child was entitled to.
Providers interviewed for the evaluation stressed that they would do everything possible to offer extended places to SEND children. However, some felt they have no choice but to turn down these requests, as they are just about managing to provide the additional support to cover the universal 15 hours. As this nursery manager explained:
‘For the first time in 20 years I found myself in the position of having to tell the parents that we could not accommodate their request [for additional hours], and it’s horrible to have to do that because we can’t get the funding for additional support.’
Providers feared that the new policy, combined with an increase in children with additional needs and a decrease in SEND support, could undermine recent progress in making early education more inclusive. They claimed the extended entitlement is stretching them to the limit, primarily because SEND funding has not increased in line with the additional funded hours SEND children may be entitled to. Moreover, as many settings are now busier than before because of an increase in demand generated by the extended offer, they no longer have spare capacity to provide additional unfunded support for children with SEND.
Up to now, very few SEND children have accessed the extended hours, and any increase in interest from these families could create considerable tensions for a sector already struggling to meet demand for provision from increasing numbers of SEND children. Some providers were worried about possible legal consequences of not being able to accommodate requests for extended hours for children with additional needs.
Local authority childcare teams were equally concerned about the challenges of ensuring SEND children’s rights could be honoured. They reported local SEND budgets were inadequate to meet demand for the universal 15 hours and could not be stretched to cover extended hours. Furthermore, as some childcare and SEND teams have been severely cut, they do not have the capacity to support families with SEND children to access the extended entitlement, nor to provide adequate SEND support to settings. This was in contrast with the experiences of some of the eight LAs that tested the policy one year before the national roll-out and were given Government funding to develop inclusive models for delivering extended hours. This raises the question of why additional SEND support stopped after the early trial.
While very few SEND children are accessing the extended hours, for those who do there can be positive outcomes. Some parents reported that their children greatly benefited from being in a setting for longer than the universal 15 hours because that means more specialist support with their additional needs; 57 per cent of mothers with SEND children reported that they had taken up a job or were working more hours because of the extended entitlement, compared with 42 per cent of other mothers.
PROBLEMS TO SOLVE
Now that the policy has been fully implemented, it is time consider two key issues.
1. All the evidence points to the need for an urgent review of early education SEND support locally and nationally. The current system does not ensure that all eligible SEND children can access the extended entitlement, nor the universal offer. And other children using the settings are denied the opportunity of experiencing truly inclusive early education practice, with all the developmental benefits this brings for everyone.
2. We should consider how inclusive is a policy that offers children additional time in early education based on parental employment, rather than the child’s needs and potential to benefit from the specialist support that settings can provide. As many in the sector argue, true quality in early education provision cannot be achieved without offering such equality.