Tackling free childcare decline

Derren Hayes
Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Councils are honing ways to reverse fall in the number of two-year-olds using the funded entitlement.

Nottinghamshire County Council's online promotional work includes films of local parents accessing early years provision
Nottinghamshire County Council's online promotional work includes films of local parents accessing early years provision

The Mayor of London has launched a campaign to boost awareness of the funded early years entitlements after latest data shows the number of disadvantaged two-year-olds taking up a place remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Across England as a whole, take-up of the 15-hours of government-funded early education for the 40 per cent most disadvantaged two-year-olds has been significantly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Most recent Department for Education data published last July shows that on average, 62 per cent of eligible two-year-olds were accessing a place in January 2021, compared with 69 per cent in January 2020.

However, the steepest fall has been in London where just half of eligible children were accessing a place in January 2021 compared to 59 per cent the year before. Late last year, with little sign of take-up improving and cases of the Omicron variant beginning to surge, London Mayor Sadiq Khan launched the Mayor’s London Early Years Campaign as part of wider pandemic recovery efforts.

The campaign aims to improve take-up of the funded entitlements and raise awareness among parents. A spokesperson for the Mayor of London’s office said: “We know that childcare support offers can be confusing for parents, and we also recognise that many are experiencing difficult financial times, so it’s essential we highlight the support they’re entitled to. This can help parents get back to work or training, while also ensuring children are ready for the next stage of their educational journey.”

Early years consultant James Hempsall says demand for childcare places has been driven by local conditions and London’s economy is yet to return to normal, with many offices still closed.

“With services being closed or moving to virtual provision, a vital part of reach and engagement strategies was lost,” explains Hempsall. “This had a profound effect on demand for early years places and providers have seen reductions, plateaus and increases depending upon local conditions last year and into this year.”

While raising awareness about funded childcare entitlements is “a good starting point”, Hempsall says more must be done to go into communities and actively find families who could benefit from them.

Some areas, such as Nottingham­shire and Buckinghamshire, that have seen take-up of funded entitlements return to higher levels have used a range of ways to engage families (see case studies).

Hempsall praises their success, but warns more needs to be done to ensure all eligible children can benefit from the entitlements.


Nottinghamshire County Council had an uptake rate for the two-year-old entitlement of 78 per cent in early 2020, but this had fallen by around 10 percentage points by spring 2021.

Niki Coupe, the council’s early years project officer, says the fall caused by Covid reinforced the need to inject “new life” into the funded entitlement offer. “By June 2021, uptake had fallen to 65 per cent; we realised we needed to do something,” says Coupe.

That summer, a programme of road shows toured the county along with pop-up stay-and-play sessions that were run with health organisations to explain the benefits of the entitlements.

“If an eligible family was not accessing a childcare setting or children’s centre service, then they were invited to these events,” adds Coupe.

A focus group consisting of a range of organisations was established to look at how the funded entitlements operated, while Coupe’s team contacted people who had applied online for the entitlement but not taken up a place.

“Some people were still concerned about Covid safety, some were waiting for a place at a specific setting and others felt their child was too young,” she explains.

To counter this, the council offered parents taster sessions and one-to-one chats with children's centre staff to allay concerns. As a result of this outreach work, an extra 41 places have been taken up by families.

In addition, the council has undertaken increased promotional work via social media including film clips of local parents accessing early years provision.

By the end of the autumn 2021 term, a record 2,001 places had been taken up, 82 per cent of those eligible two-year-olds.


Buckinghamshire Council’s promotion of the two-year-old entitlement was recently recognised at a national awards scheme.

The award for the Family Information Service was achieved due to the close collaboration with the council’s early years and childcare two-year-old funding team to develop an effective campaign that uses a range of promotional materials across digital channels.

The campaign included videos exploring what the two-year-old funding is, the benefits of taking up a funded childcare place, and a targeted video which goes out alongside the distribution of leaflets across the county.

In addition, social media posts are regularly published highlighting to parents and carers the advantages their child might gain from taking up a funded place.

These posts are shared widely by childcare providers who accept funded places in Buckinghamshire.

Other measures to engage families include sending postcards – available in seven languages – inviting them to apply via an online checker, by phone with a team member, with a QR code for easy access.

Families who have been approved for funding but are not using it, and those who appear to be paying for childcare when they might be eligible for two-year-old funding, have also been personally contacted to ensure they can access a place.

Virtual skills sessions to services such as early years providers, social care, health and family nurse partnership are also provided to help them promote the funding, identify which families may be eligible and help them apply.

Over the past year, the council has seen a 25 per cent increase in uptake as a result of the measures.

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