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30 hours free childcare offer risks impacting quality of early years education

A new report published today (Monday 30 April) by school leaders’ union NAHT shows that, while the majority of early years providers are delivering the government’s 30 hours free childcare offer, they are struggling to do so due to a lack of funding.

An NAHT survey of early years providers received 425 responses. The key findings were:

  • Almost four fifths of respondents (77%) said that they were delivering the 30 hours offer.
  • Almost four fifths (78%) said that 10% or fewer of the children accessing the 30 hours were low income families entitled to free school meals.
  • Less than a fifth (19%) said that the funding they received was sufficient to cover their costs.
  • More than two-thirds (70%) said that they were cross subsidising from another part of the school/setting to enable them to offer the additional hours.
  • Almost nine out of ten (87%) said that they probably would or, definitely would be looking to continue offering the additional hours next year.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Early years education is one of the most vital moments in a child’s education, and the point at which attainment and life chances can be set. But we know that the quality of that education really matters. Not all early years provision is equal. Children, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, make the best progress when taught by highly qualified early years professionals. But this comes at a cost.

“Unfortunately, the government’s funding to early years providers for the 30 free hours does not allow for this quality. The money received is insufficient to cover costs, let alone higher qualifications. Underfunding the 30 free hours offer risks negatively impacting quality.

“Most of the respondents to our survey are finding that they can only make things work by borrowing money from other parts of their budget. This is unsustainable. Budgets are at breaking point. Increased costs are hitting all education settings, from nurseries to primary schools, to secondaries, special schools, and colleges.

“The government’s 30 hours free childcare promise should be a boost to parents. But it is not truly free. We are seeing that providers are having to make up the funding shortfall by charging parents a higher rate for additional hours outside the school day, or for extras, like milk or nappies.

“Parents only using their free hours are confused to find they are still being asked to make ‘contributions’. And parents who need wraparound provision will not find their costs dropping by anything like 30 hours. While all parents will see some benefit, enough childcare to meet a full working day is still prohibitively expensive for many.

“And perhaps most worryingly, there is some evidence that the 30 free hours appears to be having a detrimental impact on children from deprived backgrounds. Only working families are eligible for 30 free hours – children from non-working families only qualify for 15. Almost a quarter (24%) of our survey respondents felt that the 30 hours offer had displaced more disadvantaged three and four year olds only entitled to 15 hours of free childcare. Help is not reaching the families that most need it, and children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds could risk being pushed aside.

“Ultimately, 30 hours free childcare is a great idea imperfectly implemented. It’s crucial that early years education is high quality, well-funded, and available to all. School leaders will continue to make things work as best they can, but we’d urge the government to listen to the findings of this report.”

Paul Gosling, head teacher of Exeter Road Community Primary School and Pre-School in Devon, said: “Research evidence shows that children in early years settings make the best progress when they are cared for by highly qualified early years staff. The current level of funding for the 30 hours free childcare makes it impossible for us to provide children with the quality of staff that they deserve.”

Bernice Jackson, head teacher of Kingswood Nursery School in Watford, said: “We are very concerned that because our Nursery is full (because of 30 hour children taking up any spaces) we are unable to take any more vulnerable children who are on 2 year old free funding – the most vulnerable group of all!

“The danger is because the 2 year olds are so ‘expensive’ to have (1 to 4 adult ratio) settings will not bother keeping places for them as it is easier and cheaper just to fill up spaces with 30 hour children.”

Donna Harwood-Duffy, head teacher of Dorking Nursery School and Children’s Centre in Surrey, said: “As a maintained nursery, we prioritise vulnerable families, so we’ve needed to focus our admissions carefully so that our vulnerable children did not get ‘pushed’ out by a 30 hours child.

“We have had to change what we offer for September to provide an offer that supports working parents (even though this is not why maintained nurseries exist). We currently charge £8.50 a day for the lunch period but we will miss out on this income in September when we cannot do this anymore.

“Historically, we ‘sold’ sessions to families who wanted more than their 15 hours, for this we could charge approx £7.50 per hour. The new 30 hours is stopping our capacity to offer this service and we are only getting the £4.51 income per hour from the LA.”

NAHT Recommendations

  1. The government should revisit funding rates to ensure that the costs borne by providers are fully covered. Settings should not have to rely on cross subsidising or increasing other costs to make up for the shortfall.
  2. The government should ensure that providers receive funding in a timely manner. The financial stability of providers should not be compromised by delayed payments.
  3. Government should carry out a full evaluation of the impact on those children excluded from the policy if we are to avoid reversing the success of the 15 hour free early education offer.
  4. The government should improve the infrastructure and IT that supports this policy so that is easier to both obtain and validate eligibility codes.

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