Early years in an election year

Special needs education for preschoolers has come under the spotlight this week amid growing worries about whether the Government’s childcare plans will widen inequality.

reviews of policy following the general election result.


Childcare is going to be big this year. The Government’s extended plans for ‘free’ childcare will start to come into effect amid much concern about childcare providers’ ability to meet demand and there’s a general election looming. Already this year there have been several surveys and reports, including this week. The most recent was the Coram Family and Childcare Trust report yesterday which looked at local authorities’ views about whether they can meet demand for places.

Whilst 60% of local authorities are ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ that there will be enough places to meet demand for the April 2024 expansion (15 free hours for two-year-olds), that leaves 40% who aren’t, which is a significant number. Moreover, just 27% of local authorities say the same about the expansion from September 2024 (15 free hours for children from nine months), and this falls to just 12% for the September 2025 expansion (30 hours from nine months).

Providers are angry that finding out what money they are getting to provide the places has been left until the last minute, meaning it has been very difficult to plan ahead at a time when many are under tremendous financial pressure, given historical underfunding of the ‘free’ childcare for three and four years olds, rising costs and the increase in the national minimum wage and staffing shortages.

One area where things are even tighter is in places for children with special educational needs. The Coram and Family Childcare Trust survey found 64% of local authorities identified ‘sufficiency of childcare places for children with SEND’ as an issue and 55% see ‘funding to support children with SEND’ as barriers to successful delivery.

Dingley’s Promise, which supports children with special needs to achieve their full potential, has called on parents to contact their MPs on the back of the publicity around the survey to raise the issues, saying the situation has reached crisis levels with the number of places available for children with SEND being “scandalously low”. It says the funding system is not working for several reasons, including that nurseries are, in many cases, being forced to fund SEND support themselves – especially when a child first arrives, and, what’s more, they have to pay for support while applying for funding. They want the Government to review and/or simplify funding processes.

Workingmums.co.uk’s own surveys backs this up, with the 2022 survey showing 92% of parents of kids with special needs said they had had to fund additional support for children with SEND out of their own pocket. It’s something that gets relatively little coverage.

Another issue that gets little attention is those parents who will not benefit from the new childcare provisions which only apply to families where both parents work over 16 hours a week at the minimum wage. The Sutton Trust this week raised concerns about growing inequality when it comes to childcare provision. It says just 20% of families in the bottom third of the earnings distribution are eligible for the existing 30 hour offer for three and four year olds, and all parents in full-time education or training are ineligible. 70% of those who are eligible for the support are from homes in the top half of earners. The Government’s argument is that it is keen to get more mothers into the workforce and that through work they can get out of poverty.

However, many parents get stuck in low-wage, insecure jobs with little prospect of progression and face conditionality rules which mean they could lose benefits if they don’t accept jobs. The Sutton Trust says access to nurseries is not just about childcare and that research shows that children who don’t attend pre-school education are not only likely to be behind when they arrive at school, but will find it nearly impossible to make up that ground.

Access to early years education is such a crucial part of economic and social policy, not only when children are small, but throughout their lives. The criticism is that the Government’s new childcare plans are a kneejerk response to what it thinks will be electorally popular and not carefully thought through after consultation with those who are at the heart of provision.

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