Under current regulations, free childcare entitlement should be available between 7am and 7pm, although prior to 2012 this had been 8am to 6pm. The government now wants to change this to 6am to 8pm when it extends free childcare to 30 hours each week in September 2017.
A consultation document on the plans, published today by the Department for Education, said a survey of 19,300 parents and 750 representatives from the early years sector carried out last summer revealed that “a significant proportion would like to be able to access childcare in the early morning or later in the evening to cover shift patterns”.
“We recognise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, and that the type of demand for childcare will vary from area to area and from parent to parent,” the document states.
“The government will therefore be encouraging local authorities and providers to assess the types of demand for childcare in their area, and work in partnership to ensure that the market can respond to this demand.”
There are also proposals to allow parents to stretch the 30-hour entitlement across the full year, and to make sure children with special educational needs or disabilities can access the free entitlement.
Childcare minister Sam Gyimah said: “Hard-working parents have all sorts of shift patterns, so childcare needs to be more flexible as well as more affordable.
“Our consultation sets out how we could achieve this, with greater choice over the hours available to parents that better meet the demands of the 21st century, so they can balance raising their children with their working lives.”
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said his organisation is concerned that the government’s primary focus now appears to be on “childcare” and getting parents back to work, rather than “early education that supports children from all backgrounds to get the best possible start in life”.
“The fact that most of the references to ‘early education’ have been removed from draft local authority early years guidance speaks volumes, as does the fact that there is no reference to any attempt by government to explore what impact arriving at a childcare provision at 6am, or leaving at 8pm, might have on a child's wellbeing or early learning.
“There also seems to have been little consideration of the practicalities of the proposed changes. Moving to opening hours of 6am to 8pm would be a significant change for many early years providers and one that would likely result in a marked increase in wage, rental and utilities costs for group settings.
“What’s more, while the consultation document rightly recognises that childminders are a key source of quality, flexible early years provision, it fails to mention the fact that poor policy has a resulted in the sector losing 10,000 in the last four years.
“Quite simply, unless the government provides the early years sector with the financial and practical support needed to offer an accessible, flexible and most importantly, high-quality service, it is making promises to parents that it will struggle to deliver.”
A consultation on the plans will run until 6 June. The consultation is being launched alongside a review, being led by the Cabinet Office, into ways of reducing red tape within the sector, so that childcare providers are freed from burdens placed on their time and resources, giving them more contact time with the children they look after.