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The childcare debate: affordability, sure – but don’t forget quality

Spenser, age 4, at a nursery in south London
Spenser, age 4, at a nursery in south London (photo: Poulomi Basu/Save the Children)

Today the Childcare Bill is receiving its second reading in the House of Lords. The bill would allow the government to move forward with plans to extend the free childcare offer for three- and four-year-olds in England from 15 to 30 hours a week for working parents.

Nursery associations have argued in response that expanding the free offer would put the entire system on the brink, while various commentators have argued that it would cost much more than the £350 million originally estimated.

But while the focus on affordability in the debate is important, it’s crucial that we don’t lose sight of the quality of childcare provision. High-quality childcare can make a real difference in the lives of children, particularly for those most likely to struggle in school.

The free childcare offer

The nurseries certainly have a point. The value the government allocates towards each child for the childcare offer has been held at the same cash value since 2010/11. During this period, the Family and Childcare Trust estimates that the average cost of childcare has risen by 33%.

This means that, before even getting into how local authorities allocate the funding, the funding system is likely already underestimating the cost of childcare, and has been doing so for some time.

Local authorities then allocate funding to providers based on a funding formula. The formula takes into account the cost per hour for private, voluntary or independent nurseries (PVIs), nursery schools and primary nursery classes.

The formula also includes an option to allocate supplementary funds based on indicators of deprivation, quality, flexibility and sustainability. This can be provided as per hour funding or as a lump sum.

The problem here is that while the formula is supposed to take account of local variations, the ways in which local authorities set the funding varies significantly. For example, some local authorities allocate supplementary funding based on Ofsted ratings, others on the presence of graduates, and others not at all.

The consequence of this is that childcare providers can receive wildly different funding for the same child depending on the local authority they are in. For example, one local authority in London allocates £3.26 per hour for the offer to PVIs and £5.88 per hour to nursery schools. A neighbouring local authority allocates £4.02 to both PVIs and nursery schools.

There are good reasons for some of these discrepancies. Nursery schools are much more likely to employ graduate level staff. This means that the cost per hour of providing the free hours is higher than a PVI without graduate level staff.

But this creates a real problem. If the offer is underfunded, and some local authorities have to allocate higher fees per hour for nursery schools, some PVIs are not going to be able to afford to hire staff with graduate level degrees or other qualifications.

This is why it’s crucial to talk about quality. Affordability is important, but it can have knock-on consequences for the quality of childcare that providers in England can afford to deliver.

The importance of high-quality, free childcare

We know that high quality childcare can provide significant benefits to children’s early development, particularly for boys and children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We also know that the foundation for children’s reading skills are set in the early years. Good language development sets the stage for good reading skills, and helps children get on at school.

The Read On. Get On. campaign has set the ambition of ensuring that all 11-year-old children in England can read well by 2025. As an interim goal, we’re aiming to ensure that all five-year-old children in England have a good level of language development by 2020.

That’s why we’re recommending that every childcare setting in England should have at least one member of staff qualified to degree level in a relevant early years subject, and that at least once member of staff should have a relevant third level qualification in an early years subject.

We need to consider the affordability of extending the free childcare offer. But we also need to consider the quality of childcare the free offer covers. If we’re going to meet the goal of all children reading well by age 11, it’s crucial that we don’t separate the affordability of the childcare offer from the quality of childcare it pays for.

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