Campaigners criticise progress of free childcare drive

Laura McCardle
Thursday, August 21, 2014

Early years campaigners have questioned the government's handling of its flagship childcare scheme after CYP Now revealed a widespread shortfall in the number of places available for disadvantaged two-year-olds.

CYP Now has found a shortfall of 34,854 places across 131 local authorities. Image: iStock
CYP Now has found a shortfall of 34,854 places across 131 local authorities. Image: iStock

From next month, the number of two-year-olds eligible for 15 hours of free childcare a week from a local provider will double from 130,000 to 260,000.

However, an investigation by CYP Now found that 53.44 per cent of the 131 authorities that responded to a Freedom of Information request (70 authorities) will not have secured enough places to deliver the offer to all eligible children before next month’s deadline.

Together they report a shortfall of 34,854 places.

Denise Burke, director of United for All Ages, has questioned why the Department for Education has failed to gauge the number of places available, despite widespread concerns about the expansion of the scheme.

Most recently, in June, shadow childcare minister Lucy Powell estimated that 44 per cent of councils would have insufficient places when the scheme enters its second year.

Burke said: “It shouldn’t have taken CYP Now to bring this to the fore.

“This should have been on the radar of the DfE and of government, who should have been finding this out from local authorities.

“This is really, really worrying. What was the DfE going to do? Was it going to sweep it under the carpet and hope these places would materialise?”

Liz Bayram, chief executive of the Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (Pacey), is concerned that not enough is being done to tackle the gap in provision.

She said: “We need to see greater recognition from government and local authorities of the early learning opportunities that all high-quality childcare settings provide, including registered childminders who continue to be under-utilised.

“Not all disadvantaged two-year-olds are best placed in school-based nurseries and we are concerned there is a growing focus on schools as the only solution.”

Meanwhile, Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association, said investment in the scheme is inadequate.

She said: “We know from our annual Nursery Survey that nurseries in the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) sector face an average loss of £604 per child per year for two-year-olds, which potentially makes funded places financially unsustainable in the long term.

“We know from DfE figures that 96 per cent of two-year-old places are taken up in the PVI sector, which shows what a great contribution the sector is making and it could do more if funding were resolved.”

A spokesman for the DfE has defended the scheme.

He said: “We have given councils £755m to help them reach out to eligible families and £100m to invest in the extra space needed to offer these high-quality early education places.

“All councils have a statutory duty to secure sufficient childcare for working parents locally, and a duty to ensure that every eligible family that asks for a two-year-old early learning place receives one.

“We’re committed to ensuring that all children get the very best start in life – that’s why our reforms have enabled more than 116,000 disadvantaged two-year-olds access 15 hours of free childcare a week.”

The expansion of the scheme was announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in December last year.

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