The Inquiry on the financial sustainability of the childcare sector held a third oral evidence session yesterday, 25th February, in Committee Room 7 at the Palace of Westminster.
The room was quite small, but packed with the 3 witnesses, many parliamentarians from all parties and the House of Lords, plus representatives from the sponsoring organisations and the inquiry secretariat, Connect.
The interim chair was Ruth George MP, acting for Tulip Siddiq MP who is on maternity leave. Ruth started by introducing herself and the 3 witnesses; Nicky Morgan MP, Chair of the Treasury Select Committee; Gillian Paull, Senior Associate from Frontier Economics, and Cllr Gillian Ford, Deputy Chair of the Local Government Association (LGA) Children and Young People Board. Ruth asked a number of searching questions relating to the funding of the 30 hours and the various parliamentarians present did the same.
My impression was that there is some confusion over what the parties objectives are with the funding, which several MPs and witnesses referred to:
- Do they want the cheapest possible childcare for as many children as possible, to enable parents to go back to work? Would this increase productivity in the UK? (where we are near the bottom of most tables internationally and dropping)
- Do they want quality childcare education to support children’s development – and particularly those from deprived backgrounds to reduce the attainment gap?
- Do they want to provide choices and flexibility in childcare and education for parents?
Clearly there would be different measures or Key Performance Indicators to measure each of these, and some would conflict (eg pay more for staff and their training would increase childcare costs)
Although it wasn’t discussed very much I believe there are no concerns about quality in the sector, we are seeing percentages of over 93% of all early years provision achieving Good and Outstanding, despite the steadily dropping number of level 3 qualified and above the qualified staff in the sector. There are concerns about the staffing qualifications and sufficiency which was discussed momentarily. 3 wasn’t discussed at all.
Clearly, the cheapest possible childcare is being sought by the government at barely £4 per hour for 3-4 year olds, but parents in the UK are having to contribute more than parents anywhere else in the OECD. There were discussions around increasing the number of children being funded (under 3s) being a minimal investment because the tax charged and benefits saved on the parents who could go back to work if funding were linked to working. This could even neutralise the cost completely, around £6billion was mentioned.
I was concerned to hear that the LGA think that the private sector don’t have many children with learning difficulties, a huge misconception from my perspective, as we are the ones in our 20,000 day nurseries and pre-schools engaged in early identification of special education needs, and looking after many premature and disadvantaged children, pre and during diagnosis, against the 400 grant-maintained nurseries with their significant additional funding to support such children and indeed all children attending those settings.
I was also surprised to hear Nicky Morgan differentiate early years education from care, she appeared to be happy to pay a baby sitter rate (cheap) for most of the day as long as they had a few hours of “education” during the day from a teacher. I felt this was seriously out of date, but she wasn’t the only parliamentarian in the room to feel this way, “childcare isn’t rocket science” was said as well, and another thought nannies (potentially unqualified) should benefit also from being paid for by the State because they were needed due to the late hours worked by Parliamentarians, so I think we have some work to do to explain that every hour is vital for a small child’s education – but not in a high pressure, sit at a desk way, and to include caring for a child’s wellbeing, security and happiness, without which they cannot learn effectively. These are well known to the Sector and Ofsted obviously.
Overall I think it was agreed that funding was insufficient and was increasingly insufficient due to minimum wage, living wage, business rates, inflation etc., but upcoming spending review will be a key opportunity for the Department for Education to make a strong case to the Treasury for additional resource. Sadly the Department for Education had declined to attend. Gillian Paull’s statistics though were that 76% of providers delivered the 30 hours, a third had increased occupancy, 20% had extended opening hours, there was no impact on the 2 year old places, a third had increased additional charges, 46% had had no financial impact, 16% earned more and 39% less, but those new statistics are out next month. She said she had no actual evidence of a future prediction (obviously) but that providers were likely to reduce their offer, and have less money to invest in anything, like training, going forward, due to the underfunding.
The LGA asked for more than 5% of the funding in order to support training and inspection of nurseries in-between Ofsted inspections. I wasn’t happy to hear this at all, but we were only there as observers…
Brexit had delayed this meeting several times, and we were not able to get the 2 hours that were planned originally, so Connect is hoping to get one last hour organised in the next couple of months, likely to be a small affair again, with different witnesses, I do hope we can engage with the Department for Education, and then a report will be put together.