The former director of the Sure Start programme has described the government’s free entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds as "nuts".
Eisenstadt said the entitlement would fail to make a difference to children's lives. Image: Charlie Pinder
Speaking at the first evidence session of the education select committee’s inquiry into Sure Start children’s centres, Naomi Eisenstadt said the 15 hours of free childcare would be of poor quality and fail to make a difference to children’s lives, because of a lack of adequate funding for the scheme.
She also suggested the government’s decision to offer the care to the 40 per cent most disadvantaged two-year-olds was too broad, arguing that targeted support for children and parents would be more effective.
“I think the two-year-old offer is nuts. I don’t think we’re in a position financially to offer a free service to 40 per cent, and I would much rather that the two-year-old offer be a conditional offer on a kind of support within a children’s centre,” said Eisenstadt.
“If it’s an offer that says: a mother who is not working and is in the bottom 40 per cent can go somewhere to leave their child for 15 hours, and that childcare is not particularly good quality. I don’t think it’s a particularly good use of public money. I don’t think we have the quality in place that will make a difference.”
Eisenstadt claimed that evidence from the two-year-old offer pilots had showed children only benefited from the scheme if the care they received was high quality.
Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, also gave evidence at the meeting, but said she did not agree with Eisenstadt’s assessment of the scheme.
However, Tickell said that central government’s decision to offer the free childcare to 40 per cent of two-year-olds, measured using the same criteria as for free school meals, was less effective than a more localised approach.
“There’s a better question, which is which two-year-olds need that support and how do we find them?” said Tickell. “That will give you your percentage as opposed to the 40 per cent. That would be a qualitative response rather than a quantitative one.”
Education select committee chair Graham Stuart agreed, noting the programme went “completely” against the government’s localism drive and its focus on outcomes rather than “input”.
“Maybe those [two-year-olds] who need it, need 35 hours or maybe four months intensively, but you can’t find out because you’ve got to fulfil the national package,” he said.
The two-year-old entitlement will provide 130,000 two-year-olds with 15 hours of free childcare from September this year and expand to 260,000 (40 per cent) from 2014.
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