‘Schools should be at the heart of early years education’

A new report from the Children’s Commissioner says nurseries are unsustainable and says schools could be used for early years education.



Schools should be part of the solution to delivering affordable, quality early years childcare, according to a new report which also calls for reforms to parental leave that protect time for all parents and allow them to spend quality time with their child at a time that suits them.

The Vison for childcare report from the Children’s Commissioner says parents want quality, affordable childcare and that the school day should be extended for school-aged children while schools could also help address childcare challenges in the early years. It says an extended school day would help parents and open up opportunities for additional extra-curricular activities and clubs, including breakfast clubs. On early years it states that predictions are for the number of pupils in state funded primaries set to fall by a fifth over the next decade, leaving significant underused space in schools. At the same time costs are rising for private childcare providers in the short term, which, it says, could make many childcare settings unsustainable. It states: “Opening up schools to provide more early years education would address both these issues.” .

The report also says that having schools in the early years mix would help align training of early years educators and teaching staff at schools. It states: “Bringing early education into the wider school sector would present an opportunity to align workforce training, development, and support with that of wider school staff and teachers. For too long those educating the youngest children haven’t had the respect and opportunities they deserve, and this needs to change.”

The report also calls for measures to boost the number of childminders through every local area being required to have an agency for childminders which could be run directly by a local authority, a multi-academy trust, a group of school or the local Family Hub. It says childminder agencies could increase oversight of childminders as well as support. Currently, childminders are inspected by Ofsted, but the report says inspections are not frequent enough.

Other recommendations focus on making the system of childcare support fairer so that support, such as subsidies, are available to children whatever their age. Currently, most parents have to wait until their children are three or four to access the 30 hours ‘free’ childcare. Spreading that support more evenly through, for instance, giving parents a childcare account, could be a solution, says the report. It would also like to see a stronger link between childcare development and school progress, with assessments at age two used as a baseline.

The report is based on two new pieces of research. The first is an audit of 60 local authorities that shows the difficulty many families face to navigate the Family Information Service – a statutory requirement for local authorities to provide – that and information on childcare providers was often missing. It found that for over a quarter [27%] of local authorities, it was difficult to find a local childminder on Family Information Service and for 60%, the directory of childcare didn’t contain all the information required in the statutory guidance (including on the suitability for children with a disability, fees, age range, Ofsted details or rating, and information on whether the setting accepts the universal or extended offer funding).

The second piece of research looked at take of the free 15 hours a week of early education for three and four year olds and found that, while overall take-up is fairly high, there are large differences in the rate of childcare take-up between ethnic groups, local areas, English as an additional language status and SEND status.  While overall take-up was 93% in 2019, estimated take-up is low among Chinese, Irish Traveller and Gypsy/Roma children (71%, 66%, and 62%) and pupils with English as an additional language (85%). Take-up varies by local authority, with lower take-up in London local authorities. Meanwhile, children receiving Free School Meals (FSM) in state-school were much less likely to attend private early years provision than their peers.

Childcare providers agree on the need for reform, but say greater investment is the solution and expressed concern about the recommendation on schools being used for early years care. Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, said: “It is disappointing that while this report rightly recognises that the currently early years funding system isn’t working, it fails to acknowledge that the only way to solve this problem is by substantially increasing investment into our vital sector. Extending existing offers across more age groups without tackling this fundamental issue will only exacerbate an already-dire situation.

“What’s more, with private and voluntary providers currently delivering the vast majority of early years places in this country, the suggestion that we should simply accept that those settings that are struggling are likely to become unsustainable in the long term and look to schools to deliver early years places in their place, is one we find deeply concerning. Those working in our sector have a wealth of very specific knowledge and expertise built up over years of experience supporting early learning and development and the suggestion that this could be so easily replaced is incredibly misguided.”

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