Goodwill can’t even offer plasters

We are approaching the end of the first term since the full roll out of 30-hour ‘free’ childcare and sadly, as predicted, not only is the sector feeling the strain, the minister really is not one for listening.

Champagne Nurseries Lemonade Funding (CNLF) has over 18,000 people on our campaign page, many are providers who are frustrated and worried; they have spent hours working out their offers, explaining the complicated rules to bemused, but generally supportive parents, and helping them navigate the systems for receiving and reconfirming codes. Some have closed, others are closing next year and more are unsure as to whether they can continue to offer ‘free’ hours. The vast majority are only able to deliver by charging for additional services, cross subsidising and/or restricting the ‘free’ hours.

In October, we went to Parliament for a lobby ahead of a debate on free childcare. The consistent message coming from the sector is that funding is insufficient and these hours are not free! During the debate we heard from MP’s from around the country whose constituents are loosing tens of thousands by delivering ‘free’ childcare. This prompted early years minister, Robert Goodwill, to say that he felt he was living in a ‘parallel universe’ as parents are thrilled, and a nursery chain of six in the south of England is delivering the scheme. He stopped short of his usual response that the chains were ‘stepping up’ and ‘keen to deliver on the rates provided’, presumably because Busy Bees and The Cooperative have confirmed they cannot offer fully flexible free childcare on the rates paid.

Mr Goodwill stated that the average cost of providing childcare is £3.72 per hour, this was based on information from 166 providers; to put that in context that is around 0.002 percent of the sector, collected between 2014 and 2015 – is that really sufficient to hold up as the true cost of delivering childcare in 2017 and beyond? In 2009, research found the average cost was £4 per hour; are we really to believe that the cost has fallen over the last eight years?

We heard how this policy is linked to increasing social mobility, particularly around getting women back into work. This is a noble intention, yet the staggering irony is that over 96 percent of the people working in the sector are women, this policy is destabilising the sector, therefore, putting these women’s livelihoods at risk – if it was not so serious it would almost be funny.

We heard again how vital the work that we do is, how we transform young lives and narrow attainment gaps, however, the lively debate painted a sad picture of the current state of the sector and it does not seem that this situation will change any time soon.

Last week, the Department for Education published the funding rates for 2018/19; 84 percent of councils will see their rates frozen or decreased. National Minimum Wage will rise to £7.83 for over 25’s from April 2017 – this is a real double-edged sword, it is fantastic that our incredible practitioners will, for the most part receive a pay rise, however, with no planned review of funding until 2020, and many providers already struggling to remain viable, this increase could be crippling. As expected, the budget made no mention of early years funding. We wrote to the Chancellor, with over 600 providers signing an open letter, but sadly, it appears that he did not hear us ‘peeping’. Rule one of any business is that there must be more money coming in than there is going out, therefore when costs rise, so must prices. Yet with the current legislation, these hours must be free and additional services fees must be voluntary, therefore, we cannot simply increase our prices to cover the increasing costs… that is a situation, which is unfair and unsustainable.

The simple, yet uncomfortable, truth is that fee paying parents are going to be hit by increases in order to meet these costs. The DfE has recently announced an £8 million fund for Local Authorities to help them overcome the ‘challenges’ of delivering 30-hours as more children become eligible throughout the academic year – this money is not to increase the hourly rate.

Mr Goodwill stated that to increase funding by 10 percent would cost in excess of £250 million pounds a year, so throwing £8 million at the Local Authorities is not even putting a plaster over a gaping wound.

So, in summary, the 30-hours is here, some parents are reporting benefits from it, others are saying it has increased the cost of paid for hours and are feeling duped that it is not quite the ‘free’ they were promised. Providers are battling and tying themselves in knots to deliver within the legislation and the government is not listening, so it is more important than ever that we unite and continue to ‘peep’ until they do. eye

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