'Free childcare' isn't free

The government has always been very good at the 'smoke and mirrors' approach and the 'give with one hand and take with the other'.

That is why the former Childcare and Education Minister Sam Gyimah got such a roasting from the leading figures within early years when the average rate of £4.88 was announced last winter. It was obvious to me that the £4.88 figure was misleading because everything was rolled up in it and would never be the amount that the vast majority of settings would every get near to receiving.

Unfortunately the government is getting away with it again. They still insist on talking about 'free childcare' but, I'm sorry, both of those words are wrong. It's not free, because it costs us - the settings - to provide those hours, and it's not childcare, because we actually provide high quality early years education!

The government has set the benchmark and while figures found in the Pre-School Learning Alliance’s (PLA) EYNFF Calculator are only indicative, they are based on information from the Department of Education and on historical practices of Local Authorities. These figures are in all likelihood the rates that early years settings will receive to fund the alleged ‘free hours’, and they're just not good enough.

So what is the answer? We need to look very closely at the regulations that govern the funding and the guidelines the DfE give to Local Authorities on this.  

I believe that these guidelines are a very poorly worded document written by people that have no idea of the requirements of ‘working families’. For example, when was the last time you came across a 38 week job? School teachers work more than 38 weeks, so why is the funding based on 38 weeks? There is also section on ‘Charges’, but no section on how to provide these hours in a way that meets the needs of working families and at the same time be finically sustainable for providers to offer these hours.

Another problem is the silly rules and regulations that many Local Authorities impose on settings regarding the receipt of funding. Many Local Authorities incorrectly force settings into some form of contract, but the need for a provider agreement is no longer a requirement within the government guidelines. I strongly suspect that most of what Local Authorities force early years providers to do would now be considered unenforceable if challenged legally. The government tried to cut out some of the red tape that increased providers' costs and restricted new settings from receiving funding, but many Local Authorities have not changed their provider agreements to reflect that.

My suggestion is to look at the model of how we are supposed to supply these hours for 'free'.  

There appears to be little in the guidance regarding how they are offered, but there the 'charging' section appears to be the one causing problems for day settings.  

Without change to the regulations and the way Local Authorities enforce them, early years settings must look to develop a model of delivering the ‘free hours’ that complies with the government guidelines but does not force settings to provide them in a way that is financially unsustainable.  

Earlier in the summer I surveyed families that were going to have children accessing funded hours in September and that survey showed that no one wanted the basic 'free' place as it did not meet their needs.

Successive governments have stated that these funded hours are ‘free’ and convinced the public that early years education and care is a bit like the NHS. But even the NHS is not free, because although the treatment might be, have you seen their car parking charges? Should early years settings start charging parents for parking while they drop-off or pick-up their children? Should there be a push-chair charge? Should pedestrians be charged to enter the grounds? Yes we could provide the education and care for free, but the parents would still be paying for an element of the cost of the service.

Should we be looking at the Nursing Care industry? Nursing care in England is free under the NHS and elderly people who need these services can be provided with them for no cost. But my own personal experiences of having an elderly relative needing nursing care made me realise that, yes, there were nursing homes that made no charges but they were far and few between. Most use the funding they receive from the Local Authority to off-set the full cost of their services and there is a top-up charge that the elderly person or family pay for the privilege of being able to get into the nursing home of their choice.

Why can't this system be used in early years? It still means that many families will get totally free early years education, while those that want a range and style of services over and above the basic free offer can do so if they wish to pay an amount towards the full cost of that settings services, just as you do for your elderly relative.

We can only hope that the newly appointed Childcare Minister Caroline Dinenage will have greater understanding.

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