When it’s Free, and Not Free

It’s the beginning of August. One month before working parents of 3-4 year olds (those who meet the minimum earnings threshold to qualify) will apparently be accessing 30 hours of ‘free’ childcare a week during term-time. Sounds good, doesn’t it! Ah, but look again. It’s another of those chimeras offered by the Government that Likes to Say Yes (but really means No).  With the net result that it isn’t looking very likely that many of those 3-4 years will be taking up 30 hours free childcare anytime soon. According to Suffolk Infolink, for example, there are only three providers (two school nurseries and one childminder) as of today registered to provide the 30 hours  (out of a total of nearly 500 childcare providers in Suffolk who could be signing up to deliver it). Not exactly a wide choice of handy providers for  working parents  to choose from come September.

The Department of Education wants to promote childcare. For good reason: good early years support and play can help young children to build good foundations in social skills, confidence, communication and so on before they get to school,  heading off educational inequality. There’s plenty of evidence to this effect (though it’s been studiously ignored by government and local authorities when it comes to continuing the funding for Children’s Centres, of course).  And childcare is expensive for working parents, so all in all it sounds a terrific idea.

You can hear the “but” coming…

To start with, there are problems with the policy itself. The ‘free’ childcare is only available to working parents who have enough income (but not too much, which is at least something).  Now it’s not a high threshold (to qualify parents have to earn the equivalent of 16 hours per week at minimum wage), but that does mean that many of the children who could most benefit, whose parents are out of work or too randomly employed to qualify, aren’t actually eligible for free care. I could go on. The message ‘you have to be the right sort of parent to qualify for our offer’ couldn’t be clearer.

The government is of course at liberty to make bad policy decisions. But it isn’t at liberty to expect small businesses, self-employed individuals and voluntary sector organisations to pay for them. Which is exactly what seems to be happening.

I became aware of this issue during the election campaign, when as a local Labour candidate I was contacted by local childcare providers who have set up a national campaign group called Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding (CNLF). (And if only Labour had got in, childcare would be funded, with the funds being paid directly to providers so they could budget and plan properly. But I digress.) CNLF are rightly angry at being forced to pay for government policy, and even angrier at the mis-selling of the childcare as ‘free’. Many childcare providers are private nurseries, the kind of local enterprise that the Tory government is usually so keen on. But bizarrely, it looks as if government expects the private sector, along with not-for-profit nurseries (both types often providing longer days year-round to meet the needs of working parents), to take the biggest hit.

Childcare doesn’t come cheap: it needs staff (never mind rent, electricity, food etc). Preferably experienced and qualified early years staff, in sufficient quantities that they can do more than simply feed, toilet and keep the children safe.  In preparation for the 30 hours ‘free’ childcare, the DfE (with assistance from Deloitte) did a survey of childcare providers, their staffing ratios and cost, and found that (not surprisingly) on average providers use higher staff-ratios than the statutory minimum. (The word ‘minimum’ is used for a reason. Surely it is no coincidence that 85% of childcare providers have good or outstanding Ofsted ratings, yet average staff ratios are well above the statutory minimum?) And the DfE’s conclusion, of course, was not that parents and providers clearly prefer a staff:child ratio that enables staff to do more than make sure the children stay safe. No, the DfE decided that – despite the real-terms cuts in funding the National Audit Office had previously pointed to them –  it must be possible for providers to make savings and provide childcare more cheaply. The upshot? Providers are being paid less than it costs to provide care. Oh and they’re not allowed to pass the shortfall on to parents. So how might providers respond? One way, apparently, is to put staff on ‘more flexible’ contracts. (The kind of contract that could of course render them ineligible for the free childcare if they have young children of their own!)

The government, of course, has passed the buck to local authorities to sort out. But they are not equipped to do so. A quick glance at the Facebook page for the CNLF group shows you the kind of advice local authority advisors have been meting out to providers. It ranges from ‘ask staff to work voluntarily until the numbers build up’, ‘pay all the staff same regardless of (relevant and required) qualifications’ to ‘put out a bucket for donations’ to ‘take in the parents’ ironing to do whilst staff aren’t busy’.  You get the picture.  Advisors have been tasked to do the government’s dirty work implementing an un-funded policy, all the while having to pretend it’s Christmas for parents. Because the government aren’t so much providing free childcare as a free-for-all and a race to the bottom in the childcare market. You’ve got to wonder what kind of childcare MPs and councillors would choose for their own children: nurseries that open the hours the parents want, with qualified and motivated staff who work regular hours and can get to know their children, or providers open when they can afford to be, with minimum staffing levels and a donation bucket to pay for paintbrushes. So much for the value of early years education.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Sue Gray on 2 August 2017 at 8:43 pm

    Thank you for understanding…settings, including mine, are CLOSING at an alarming rate, Good and Outstanding, where will this leave our children?

    Reply

  2. Posted by Sam Sims on 3 August 2017 at 3:51 pm

    Thank you for understanding… I am not offering the 30 hours until I am more confident about what is going to actually happens. My hourly rate is £5.. SCC – £3.91.. say no more!

    Reply

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