Please Share This:

The Real Issues Of Free Childcare

Stepping Stones Group’s managing director consults with Deloitte’s over the Dfes plans for increasing the 3 year old childcare offer to 30 hours; and spells out the real issues.

Really understanding the issues of the government’s pledge

Government Policy Makers Get Free Childcare WrongIt’s an interesting dichotomy; the very idea of 30 hours free childcare and education; as a universal offer is welcomed by all. However it appears its delivery was one of those ‘we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it’ moments; and rather more complex than the policy makers might have believed.

The nursery and childcare sector has been encouraged to respond to consultations online and as an interested party I logged on to answer the survey. It immediately became clear that some of the key issues were not being discussed. Each sector will have its own issues but for the private sector it probably amounts to three basic elements: staffing, premises and funding.

Passion Over Certification?

Although this is an opinion expressed by Stepping Stones; I would suggest the common issue for most operators is staffing on two main counts. Firstly, staff retention. As a key example the remuneration package offered by the local authorities far outweighs the salary limits we in the private sector have to work within. Consequently many outstanding childcare settings and I include my own nurseries based in Cheshire and Staffordshire who have spent a great deal of effort investing and nurturing good and degree educated staff lose them to LA schools, social working and other family services. Secondly, emerging workforce. The government for some extraordinary reason believes that attaining a level C in Math and English will improve the quality of teaching and lead to better outcomes for children. In my opinion this is an untested view and is limiting new blood coming through into the childcare sector, restricting opportunities for those that may fall short of the academic measurements but have a true passion for working with children. I personally would choose passion over a certification any day of the week and I think my parents would stand behind me on this one.

Critical Government Funding

Next. The living wage is nearly upon us and without question this means a significant increase in childcare fees like the industry has never seen before. Unless the government is prepared to look at other ways to support the sector there will be no other option. I would suggest this could be as much as a 15% increase as a result. Realistic government funding for the 30 hours is therefore critical. For far too long the private sector has been blatantly used to subsidise the government 15 hours at a loss of approximately £600 per child, per year. Clearly this cannot continue.

Earlier this year I approached local councilors and politicians with a proposal that could go a long way to address both issues with government intervention. That is to say paying the living wage and keeping childcare fee increases in line with the annual cost of living. Unfortunately the proposal was either misunderstood or unwelcomed but certainly never received further airtime. In fact the response in a letter from the Under Secretary of State for Childcare and Education to the issue was that the obvious answer to “your problem (and it actually is not my problem as a childcare provider, it’s yours as our government) was to increase fees. That Sir is precisely what we are desperately trying to avoid!

Delayed Investment … Is It Too Late Already?

Finally, the question of premises. For many good quality childcare providers, it goes without saying that if you have a busy pre-school of 40 children attending for 15 hours increasing this to 30; means more children staying for longer. So in simple terms; instead of the 40 children attending am and 40 pm, we now have 80 children all day … in the same space. Clearly part of the funding programme for childcare must include government investment into infrastructure to meet the demand for increased capacity. And as anyone knows who has undertaken re-builds at home or in business, this investment is needed at least a year before the delivery … “therefore we should be planning for this today.”

Maria Bradbury BSc (Hons)

MD Stepping Stones Group