Free childcare funding sufficient despite closures, says Hinds | Education

The education secretary, Damian Hinds, has insisted nursery schools have enough funds to deliver 30 hours of free childcare even though many are struggling – and some have been forced to close – as a result of the flagship policy.

The minister said his officials would keep the costs that nurseries faced under review but that for now the funding levels were fixed.

The government’s offer of 30 hours for three- and four-year-olds has been a boost for many working parents but has been criticised by providers who argue that the allotted funding does not cover the full cost.

This week the Preschool Learning Alliance charity said nurseries and childminders were struggling to cope, with almost half raising parents’ fees as a result of the shortfall. Others were charging extra for lunches and outings.

Many smaller childcare providers have closed over the past year, since the number of free hours was increased, citing the higher costs of the scheme.

Hinds, setting out the benefits to social mobility of the early years offer, told the Guardian: “We do, and need to, pay close attention to the cost structures of early years provision … We’ve been through these important questions before and we’re going through them again. Of course we keep looking at them.

“The funding levels are set at the level which we have come to, looking at figures put together on what the cost levels are to make sure that providers are able to provide places.”

In England, all three- and four-year-olds can get 15 hours of free early education or childcare each week during term time, as can the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. To qualify for the additional free hours offered under the 30-hour scheme, each parent living with the child must have earnings equivalent to at least 16 hours a week at the national minimum wage and neither can earn more than £100,000 a year.

Research by the Department for Education shows there has been 94% take-up of the free hours among three-and four-year-olds in England, but just 72% among the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, who are also eligible.

Take-up in London has been substantially lower than in the rest of the country, at 84% for three- and four-year-olds and 61% for two-year-olds. Higher costs in the capital, both for parents and childcare providers, are thought to be a key factor.

The DfE report also says children’s centres can be an effective route to engaging with parents to help improve social mobility.

However, according to the Sutton Trust it is thought that as many as 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres have been shut down in England since the Tories came to power in 2010 – double the official closure estimates.

Hinds rejected claims the Conservatives had been rash to oversee the closure of so many children’s centres, claiming there were still 2,000 in existence.

“With the two-year-olds offer, early years care and education is now available in many more places than ever there have been children’s centres. Overall we’re spending significantly more on early years,” he said.

Hinds set out details of how a £30m fund, already announced, would be used to create thousands of new school-based nursery places in the poorest areas, which will be open after school and during the school holidays.

He underlined his support for grammar schools, insisting they could also boost social mobility, even though education experts maintain they do little to improve the life chances of poorer children.

The minister claimed that disadvantaged children could progress further if they attended selective schools, which he said offered a high-quality education. He was unable to immediately identify evidence to back up his claim.

Proposals to lift a ban on creating new grammar schools were a key plank of the Conservative party manifesto at the last election but the idea was dropped after the party lost its majority.

Despite fierce opposition, Hinds announced in May that England’s 163 existing grammar schools would get £50m to expand if they agreed to improve access for poorer children.

Hinds made clear that the government had no plans to back away from the plans despite fierce opposition from the sector.

He said: “When you adjust for prior attainment you can see that grammar schools can add … additional value. If you look at various local areas there are [some] that have selective education at secondary school that have particularly good overall performance. So yes we do know that disadvantaged children can progress further.

“What I want to make sure is that accessibility of that facility is made absolutely as widely as possible.”

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