There are issues to work through with the extended entitlement, but they can be overcome, says James Hempsall OBE
Extending the early years entitlement to up to 30 hours, for three- and four-year-olds from working families, is a policy that has proved extremely popular with parents struggling to juggle work and home. And it has been broadly welcomed by the early years sector too. We understand, better than most, the important role we play in helping families to work and achieve their goals, alongside our core responsibility of supporting children’s wellbeing and learning outcomes.
For me, it has always been a double deal: early education and childcare. Children learning, growing and developing, and families managing their economic wellbeing. I don’t think it’s possible to do one without fully considering the other. But this is still not a widely held view in early years. The whole sector needs to realise that we can achieve both with equal success.
Some two years after the policy was announced, we’ve yet to start full delivery of 30 hours. It has been a frustrating period peppered with unanswered questions, and the generation of many myths and misunderstandings. Now, with only a few months to go to the launch in September 2017, there’s still much to do and consider.
First, let’s look back before we look forwards. The work that many local authorities have been doing on early implementation reveals some useful insights. Eight of them started delivering smaller numbers of places (around 400 each) from September 2016, whilst over 20 more have been looking at themes and issues such as SEND, flexibility or childcare sufficiency. I’ve noticed several themes that will help: information; business planning; partnerships and collaboration; demand and supply; and thinking differently.
One key to successful implementation is moving information around as soon as possible, and getting the terminology clear and consistent. Beware the temptation to hold back until you’ve got all the facts at your fingertips. Engaging in widespread early dialogues with staff, other providers and schools, the local authority, and current and potential parents is vital.
Everyone needs to understand the eligibility criteria, as one of the biggest reasons people don’t take up any entitlement is they wrongly assume it’s not for them. And all need to know the process of applying and taking their places. Demand will be high for the extended entitlement, and demand will drive supply; it will give providers a valuable insight into local needs and wants (just like it did with two-year-olds), and will be a powerful and dynamic force that will support all our business decisions moving forward.
I understand how frustrating it has been for providers and councils not knowing for sure the funding rates that will be paid. This message has reached me loud and clear wherever I’ve been. However, of the 10 steps we have been sharing (Getting Ready for 30 Hours, childcareworks.co.uk), the first six did not rely on the funding rate being confirmed. Now, the necessary processes should all be complete, and we should all know the financial offer. This offers the opportunity for real planning on what’s possible.
Everyone must review their business plan and financial models with 30 hours in mind, then review them again. I meet many providers who are on top of their business planning and financial profiling, but I have to say the vast majority I meet do not have a business plan, have not worked out their delivery costs, nor considered the impact and business potential of 30 hours.
If that is you, be honest and seek help now. It needs to be within the context of running an early years service; generic support doesn’t cut it. This is where partnerships and collaboration is advantageous – peer-to-peer support shared between settings, schools and childminders can provide much-needed second opinions and sharing of best practice.
This doesn’t happen overnight; it requires hard work and tenacity. Don’t take the first ‘no’ for a final answer. Many times a door has been shut in my face, yet I’ve persisted and forged some amazing alliances. In practical terms, settings may need to collaborate to ensure the full 30 hours is available, free at the point of delivery, for children each week.
Myths and misunderstandings
The myths and misunderstandings concerning 30 hours are the biggest barriers to the programme. They need to be put to bed. I still hear how providers feel this isn’t going to happen. Well it is. And there are all sorts of ideas being shared around of how practice can be delivered outside of the DfE statutory guidance and local contract agreements.
This is unhelpful. There is a risk of us reversing the direction of travel we have started with flexible delivery, but I think once the dynamics of demand and supply settle in, we will see parents using their entitlements in ways that make sense for them and providers.
Unlike the first 15 hours, there will be many parents who don’t use their whole entitlement. Instead, they could need as little as two or three hours more each week, across more weeks of the year, not just in school term times. This may help providers achieve a balance in the week and throughout the year. When in doubt, refer to the statutory guidance, and ask the local authority with whom you are contracting.
Once these barriers and concerns are worked through over the next few months, we will then focus on how much hard-working families (on average incomes or below) struggle to manage work and life, and to balance their household expenditure and childcare costs. And if the early implementation is anything to go by, 30 hours will make a tremendous difference that we will all be proud of.
James Hempsall OBE has been supporting providers, local authorities and central government to implement early years policy for over 25 years.