There are two headline commitments in Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday: to extend free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds from 15 hours a week to 25 hours a week, and to place a new legal duty on primary schools to ensure that wraparound care is available from 8am-6pm for all pupils.
Policy Exchange has already written extensively about the first of these. The problem with this extension – as with the Coalition announcement that poorer 2 year olds will receive free hours – is the number of places. As Labour pointed out, there is already a shortfall of 38,000 places available to meet the current free offer. Labour’s £800m commitment will fund extra hours but doesn’t seem to address this supply side issue. Policy Exchange’s recommendation is to cut the tax free childcare allowance and use the savings of up to £238m a year to focus strictly on quality improvement for settings to increase supply of Good or better places. (Our report also took on the oft quoted stats about Sure Start closures. It found that fewer than 1% of centres had actually closed since 2010, despite funding cuts. The 576 figure quoted by Miliband includes centres which have merged or share back offices and hence do not register individually on the central database – these are not closures. 67% of the population still live within 1 mile of a children’s centre)
The second announcement is essentially recreating one element of the extended schools programme rolled out by the last government. All schools were meant to provide access to the ‘core offer’ of 5 features to become an extended school by 2010, which included access to formal wraparound childcare for primary schools (and the final figures show that as of June 2010 99% of schools were indeed reporting compliance). However, it is worth unpacking exactly how the childcare element of the offer was delivered (all data from the reports here and here, figures refer to both primary and secondary unless stated)
- At the time the analysis in these reports was undertaken, 86% of schools were offering childcare after school and 70% before school during term time (in holidays only 13% of schools provided childcare every week with 34% offering it for five weeks or less over the year) However, it is worth noting that many schools delivered extended services in clusters (average size ten schools) rather than each individually. Almost a quarter of schools (24%) were delivering the childcare offer by providing ‘access’ to provision off site – either for space reasons, or small numbers of children, or convenience – and only half of those schools offered transport to another school where childcare was based. In other words, a school could legitimately say that it was ‘offering’ childcare when in fact all it was doing was putting a link on its website to a childcare provider, or saying it was part of a group of schools where one of the others had a childcare offer after school, which it may or may not have provided transport to, and which in practice didn’t run for much of school holidays.
- Secondly, Labour are clear that this offer will be funded by parental charges (hence no more government money needed). This was also the case for extended schools. But although three quarters of schools did charge, almost two thirds also relied on school funds to make the numbers add up – and just over a third of schools ran childcare entirely for free through school staff or volunteers because they couldn’t make a charged model work. Access to funding (or lack of it) was cited as the major barrier to expanding childcare in schools. That is exactly why the last government provided £265m as a central subsidy (as part of a pretty significant £1.3bn planned investment in extended schools between 2008-2011, all of which has now been cut or absorbed into mainstream school budgets) – because a purely charged for model didn’t work for a large proportion of schools.
In other words, what is clearly a desirable outcome – for schools to offer childcare to help working parents – can be very difficult for anywhere up to about a quarter of schools to offer due to transport and cost constraints (as well as pure space constraints). Placing a legal duty on schools to deliver this – as is proposed – without addressing these barriers will most likely just lead to a further recreation of bureaucratic compliance via ‘access’ arrangements, as before.
Childcare is indeed vital to parents, for both pre-school and school aged children. It is welcome to see Labour’s commitments in these important areas fleshed out a little more, but there are still real questions as to the practicalities of how this will be implemented to give parents a concrete offer for their children – and schools reassurance that this will not turn into a bureaucratic exercise.