The doubling of the free entitlement for three- and four-year-olds from 15 to 30 hours per week is being piloted from September in eight local authorities ahead of the policy being introduced nationally from September 2017.
However, when questioned at a Commons public accounts committee hearing this week, Department for Education officials were unable to assure MPs that evidence and learnings from the pilot areas will be released in time for the expanded entitlement being made available nationally.
Committee chair and Labour MP Meg Hillier said the uncertainty could deter nurseries from offering the additional 15 hours of free early education and make it harder for parents to plan childcare arrangements.
Addressing Helen Stephenson, director of early years at the DfE, over when the evaluation of the pilots would be published, Hillier said: “You’re piloting in September 2016 with a view to full implementation in 2017, so by the time you’ve got the pilot going and evaluated it’s not going to be able to give much notice.
“Many [providers], particularly settings that require capital investment, would need to know in good time, many months before [September 2017].
“Parents will also be deciding whether or not [to] go back to work and get the 30 hours, and will it be provided locally.
“If there’s not enough certainty, then you’ve heard from providers they’re not sure what they’re going to do.”
Stephenson said she did not know when the evaluation of the pilot areas will be published “but we obviously want to use the information to inform us as we roll the programme out”.
She added that the DfE is working with the University of East London and consultancy firm Frontier Economics to help design an evaluation framework, which she said will be in place in time for implementation.
Chris Wormald, outgoing DfE permanent secretary, also told the committee that the department will be in constant contact with the pilot areas.
Reacting to the news, Denise Burke, chair of Poppy and Jacks nursery group, said it is crucial that findings from the pilots are shared with the sector.
"Parents, and most importantly, childcare providers in the pilot areas, need to know what it will mean for them," she said.
"As the chair of a nursery group based in one of the pilot areas it is difficult to plan for the demand of places, and indeed forecast financially.
“We need to know sooner rather than later from the Department for Education what the full picture of delivering 30 hours will be."
This comes after a survey of early years providers by the Pre-school Learning Alliance found that one in five will not be providing the 30 hours, and another half said they were unsure.