Call for universal access to ‘free’ childcare hours

A new report from the Fawcett Society says access to the free hours childcare scheme should not be exclusively for those working or those working over 16 hours a week at the minimum wage or more.

Child playing with blocks at nursery


The Government should grant universal access to the ‘free’ hours early years scheme, according to a new report from the Fawcett Society which calls for greater ambition to fix the ‘broken’ early years system.

Currently the ‘free’ hours – covering three and four year olds for 30 hours a week during term time and recently extended to include 15 free hours during term time for two year olds – are only available to parents who earn over the equivalent of 16 hours a week at the minimum wage.

The call is one of a ten-point plan for reform in England in Fawcett Society’s Transforming Early Childhood Education and Care: Sharing International Learning Part 2 report.

It includes a call for a cross-governmental strategy, based on evidence and which puts children at the heart of the system and the expansion of the ‘free hours’ scheme to make the offer open to all children, not just those of working parents, with extra subsidies for the poorest to enable them to afford to supplement the universal offer and fee freezes (moving to caps) for everyone.

The campaign body also says funding should be provided to nurseries so that they can operate in unprofitable areas, and support inclusion for all children, not just those with a diagnosis. Other recommendations include calls for reforms to regulation, including a workforce strategy, for a more inclusive curriculum with a greater focus on continuous improvement and for a more active role for government to ensure higher quality and sustainability.

Jemima Olchawski, Fawcett Society Chief Executive, said: “Our childcare is some of the most expensive in the world and it isn’t working. Research shows that 85% of mothers struggle to find childcare that fits around their work and one in ten have quit jobs due to childcare pressures. For too long we’ve seen the cracks in our dysfunctional childcare system papered over. We’ve got a patchwork of provision that doesn’t meet the needs of children, parents or the childcare sector.

“But a broken system isn’t inevitable, as the countries in our research clearly show. We need politicians from all parties to work together and make genuine commitments that last beyond this election – and indeed the next – to reform childcare. There are plenty of countries around the world who simply do childcare better and we should be learning from their ambition. As we approach a general election, all parties need to be aware that any credible vision for transforming childcare mustn’t simply offer bolt-ons to a crumbling system. We must be more ambitious, particularly when it has such an impact on both children’s life chances and women’s ability to work.

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