30 hours free childcare – a policy that works for everyone?
In the political calendar, party conferences may feel like a lifetime ago. Over a month has passed since Westminster uprooted to Liverpool and Manchester respectively to hear from the highest echelons of our political parties about the future of the country. You may have picked up on Brexit controversies at Labour, a sell-out fringe event from a disgruntled former Foreign Minister at Conservatives and overall sense of enthusiasm, or relief, depending on who you talk to – from the party membership at both.
However, of all the moments to pick out of Jeremy Corbyn’s closing speech to the Labour conference, an announcement on childcare may not have been it. Understandable, given the screen time allocated to addressing the party’s issues with anti-Semitism and attempts to set out a Brexit stance.
Trailed in Angela Rayner’s speech to delegates on the Monday, Corbyn announced that under a Labour government, the 30 hours free childcare offer would be expanded to encompass two-year olds as well. The government’s current offer applies only to 3 to 4-year olds.
Now to all intents and purposes, this sounds like a good thing.
What’s not to like? The basic rubric of the policy allows for 30 hours “free” childcare places for working parents of three and four-year olds. A few criteria apply: your child is eligible if you earn more than the equivalent of 16 hours work at the national living wage. This means that you if you’re over the age of 25, you’re earning more than £120 a week. In terms of an upwards threshold, you must earn less than £100,000 a year.
The premise of the policy, introduced by the government in September 2017, cannot be faulted. Corbyn’s pledge to extend the eligibility criteria is also to be commended. Working parents, whose transition back to the workplace after having a child may have been slowed by the sheer expense of childcare, are given an avenue back to work. The criteria are unmistakeably Conservative – you must prove that you are in work and working towards your own self-sufficiency and social mobility – and the premise of the offer really sticks.
It’s a fantastic thing for women, too, who we know are disproportionately more likely to miss out on advancement in the workplace after having a child. It’s a good thing for productivity. The Treasury Committee recently concluded that by allowing parents to re-enter the labour market at a level more consistent with their skills, the policy means that the UK’s overall productivity could be improved. If nothing else, it makes childcare far more affordable from those that already receive support and are eligible.
But as with all good policies, there’s a catch. In this case, a fairly large one.
Research conducted by Ceeda has found that the average hourly cost to private, voluntary and independent (PVI) providers and pre-schools providing funding for the places is £5.08. The average government funding rate? £4.34. The average shortfall of 74p per child per hour has led to an overall annual funding shortfall of £63m for the 30 hour offer for three and four-year olds.
For the settings delivering the offer, this is fairly seismic. Research published by the Pre-school Learning Alliance has found that only around a third of childcare providers are delivering 30 hours places ‘completely free’ to parents. 37% have introduced or increased charges for additional goods and services which previously have been free – goods such as basic meals and snacks. 66% plan on changing how they deliver on the offer, the majority through further increases to fees and charges.
Most worryingly for the policy, 38% of providers are uncertain whether they can afford to continue to offer 30 hours places in a year’s time. Most worryingly for parents and providers, 121 nurseries have closed since the introduction of the offer – a 66% increase on the previous rate of closures.
Nurseries have been vocal about their concerns. Connect’s APPG for Childcare and Early Education led a lobby day in July, where providers met with over 50 MPs to express the need for a reformed funding model. The APPG will also launch an inquiry on the sustainability of the childcare sector in November as a result of the significant challenges facing the sector.
The sector is not alone in its concerns. The Treasury Committee also concluded that the hourly funding rate was “misleading” and has recommended that government “ensure that the hourly rate paid to providers reflects their current costs.”
To ensure that the policy is a success at every point of delivery, the government must address the concerns of providers and its own parliament. 30 hours is a fundamentally good policy with good intentions and good outcomes. The onus is on the Department for Education to ensure it can see it through and make a success of it for parents and providers alike.