Free childcare scheme 'could backfire' in schools

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education and social affairs reporter

Image source, Thinkstock
Image caption,
Children learn through play in the early years

Plans to extend free childcare places in England's schools could backfire and leave fewer children attending school nurseries, head teachers say.

Free childcare for working parents is set to rise to 30 hours a week in 2017.

A National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) heads' union survey of schools with nurseries suggests most would have to cut places to accommodate children moving from a half to a full day.

The government says it is working with the sector to deliver the promise.

It has been meeting with NAHT leaders to address concerns raised by the union.

The NAHT surveyed 790 of its members running schools with nurseries on site in July.

Cross subsidies

The majority of those surveyed said schools did not receive enough funding to cover the cost of their nursery provision and some 80% were subsidising it from their school budgets.

The reason schools did this, the NAHT said, was because good quality early years education was a valid investment for the rest of their education.

The hourly fee schools were getting from local council grants to provide such childcare was less than £5 an hour per child for most schools, it said.

A little more than half (53%) said they needed £3 more per hour per child to be able to fund the service without subsidising it.

But two-thirds of the schools which responded said the changes would lead to them accommodating between 25% and 50% fewer children than at present.

However, of those schools which felt they could not increase their capacity, nearly half said they would be able to do so if capital funding was made available.

Shortage of places

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The findings indicate a potentially perverse outcome. If it's not funded better there would actually be fewer children provided for.

"I don't think the government has thought through the full implications of that promise."

He added: "If we are having to accommodate hundreds of thousands more primary school children in primary schools where are we going to find these nursery places?"

He said: "Half of our schools say they can't increase the places they offer. The effect will be simply that they don't do it."

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said the NAHT's findings reinforced the concerns raised by the private and voluntary childcare sector about the potential impact of the 30 hours offer.

He added: "As the NAHT report highlights, extending funded childcare hours could result not only in increased costs to parents, but also in a shortage of places, as many providers simply do not have the capacity to double the number of funded hours they offer.

"It's vital that government resists the temptation to rush out a policy that, while attractive on the surface, is simply unworkable in its current form."

It comes after a shortfall of places and take-up of the free childcare places for disadvantaged two-year-olds.


NAHT officials stressed that to double the number of hours that children are catered for is not as simple as doubling the amount of places available.

Catering facilities, extra rooms, equipment and a much changed range of activities would be required to educate and care for children of this age for a full school day, they said.

The Department for Education said: "Childcare is one of the biggest issues affecting parents. This is why we are working closely with the sector to deliver 30 hours of free childcare, and innovative childcare providers are being asked to come forward as the first in the country to deliver it from September 2016.

"We have already committed to raising the average hourly rate providers receive, and are also undertaking a review of childcare costs to inform a new rate that is fair for providers and delivers value for money for the taxpayer."

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