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“We’ll Have To Raise Fees” – Parents Can’t Wait For Sept, But The Sector Is Worried About 30 Hours

To succeed, we need sufficient funding, enough staff and more space, says June O'Sullivan

  • “We’ll Have To Raise Fees” – Parents Can’t Wait For Sept, But The Sector Is Worried About 30 Hours

I was chatting to a parent the other day who told me that she and her friends were all very excited that from 1 September they would be entitled to 30 hours free childcare; it would mean she could go back to work.

She was a little disappointed when I told her that the term ‘entitled’ was somewhat misleading, and that she would only be able to access the 30 hours if the sector provided them.

I made the same point to a group of local authorities at a conference recently, warning them to get the message right to parents to avoid disappointment and discontent. Because, while parents are keen, the sector is worried.

How can we provide the 30-hour offer – an increase from 570 to 1,140 ‘free’ hours a year – for so many families?

Those eligible include homes where both parents are working (or the sole working parent is a lone parent family) with each parent earning on average a weekly minimum equivalent to 16 hours at national minimum or living wage, but less than £100,000 per year. That includes self-employed parents and those on zero hours contracts.

That’s a lot of people who may be very disappointed when they ask for their ‘entitlement’ to the full 30 hours.

To succeed, we need sufficient funding, enough staff and more space. Can we do this? We’re still recovering from a 72% drop in recruitment and retention crisis caused by the ill-considered A to C GCSE policy.

Many settings are already subsidising the funded places and so have no financial margin to increase places or build extra rooms.

NDNA reports an average funding loss of £900 per child. The Pre-school Learning Alliance has said that 58% of its members believe funding is insufficient, and that only 44% are considering providing the offer. The DfE itself published a report that said they anticipated a shortfall of 10,000 places.

In London, a report from LCPA found that:

13% of settings believe the funding is sufficient, with over half saying that remaining financially viable over the next two years would be very challenging;
40% of settings are not sure or definitely not going to take part; and
33% of settings say they will not offer more 15 hour places for three- and four-year-olds over the next two years.

The outcome for parents will be a shortage of places, and no doubt this will hit the poorest first.

Any ideas?

So, what are the options? We can’t charge parents for any part of the free entitlement, either directly or indirectly. So we’ll have to raise the fees.

We can charge for activities we currently provide as part of the offer, and we can charge for meals – or parents can provide a packed lunch. (This leads to many other issues, of course: 43% of settings believe that 30 hours, and the challenges of managing two lunch arrangements, will negatively affect their food provision; there is a space issue as packed lunches need to be stored safely; and how do you create an inclusive environment where one child gets a meal cooked by the nursery chef while another is tucking into a cheese-and-crisp sandwich?!)

Finally, while the DfE has clarified that it’s not ‘15 hours of education and 15 hours of childcare’, it’s coming across as that, especially if they’re insisting on the flexibility of using 15 hours to wrap around the child.

This is a backwards step in the quality debate, which demands integrated care and education to meet the full developmental needs of a child.

The sector needs a serious conversation about 30 hours to prevent disgruntled parents and an unravelling of the quality we have fought so hard to build.

June O’Sullivan MBE is the CEO of the London Early Years Foundation. Visit leyf.org.uk, June’s blog at juneosullivan.wordpress.com or connect on Twitter @JuneOSullivan.

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