Budget: Critics attack lack of action on free childcare funding

By Neil Puffett

| 08 March 2017

The government has been criticised for failing to act on concerns within the childcare sector about funding for extended free provision, after no additional money to boost the flagship initiative was announced in today's Spring Budget.

Chancellor Philip Hammond announced plans for a further 110 free schools. Picture: UK Parliament

Delivering the 2017 Budget in the House of Commons today, Chancellor Philip Hammond made announcements on school investment and the planned sugary drinks tax, but did not pledge any additional money for childcare.

The 30-hour childcare entitlement, up from the current 15 hours a week, will be introduced from September this year - but providers are concerned about the level of funding on offer, with a nursery owner involved with the pilot yesterday describing involvement with the scheme as "economic suicide".

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said it was incredibly disappointing that Hammond's brief reference to childcare included no mention of early years funding.

"With just six months to go until the rollout of the 30-hour so-called ‘free childcare' offer, the government simply cannot continue to ignore the very valid concerns about the viability of the scheme that have been raised," he said.

"The extended entitlement offer was a key Conservative manifesto pledge to families, and yet, with more and more childcare providers looking to limit the funded places they will offer - or in some cases, pull out of the scheme altogether - it's looking increasingly likely that many parents expecting to benefit in September will be left disappointed."

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said the chancellor chose to ignore the plight of nurseries, "instead supporting local pubs".

"This does not fit with his comments that central to this government's values is that every child should have the opportunity to fulfil his or her potential.

More broadly, Hammond did confirm additional government investment for schools that had been heavily trailed in the media in recent days.

Additional funding of £320m will go towards paying for a further 140 new free schools, 30 of which have already been committed to. Hammond said these will include independent-led, faith, selective, university-led and specialist maths schools.

Meanwhile, a further £216m will be invested in school maintenance to improve the condition of the school estate. Hammond also said that government will fund changes to school transport so that young people attending selective schools benefit from free transport if they are on free school meals or their parents claim maximum working tax credit. Free transport is currently only available to non-selective schools.

Amanda Batten, chief executive of Contact a Family, said that against a backdrop of cuts to school transport for disabled children, she is concerned that the government has prioritised children in grammar schools for free school transport.

"Contact a Family's ongoing inquiry into school transport for disabled children has found that families are increasingly being asked to pay for their disabled child to travel to school," she said.

"Many are paying over £500 a month, when they can ill afford to do so."

The government has also been criticised for failing to provide a boost to schools struggling financially.

Kevin Courtney, general Secretary of the National Union of Teachers said schools and sixth form colleges are "on their knees struggling to make ends meet".

"School budgets have been cut to the bone, class sizes have increased, subjects have been dropped from the curriculum, materials and resources are scarce yet nothing has been done to address this very serious problem," he said.

All this comes at a time of soaring pupil numbers and a developing crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. Instead of tackling this crisis of their own making, we now learn that extra funding will pour into the opening of new free schools and grammar schools for which there is absolutely no need. Parents and teachers will be deeply dismayed at this flagrant and irresponsible waste of money. These are simply the wrong priorities."

Hammond also confirmed the levy rate for the so-called "sugar tax" on soft drinks, adding that the government will guarantee that schools will receive £1bn by 2020 to support healthy living programmes regardless of how much it raises.

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