Disadvantaged children should get larger share of childcare budget

The next government should review priorities for childcare and early education in England to ensure a greater share of the £6.4 billion annual budget is spent on children from disadvantaged backgrounds, a House of Lords committee has said.

In a new report, the Lords Committee on Affordable Childcare said better value will be achieved from the investment of taxpayers’ money by targeting it more closely on those who are most likely to benefit, rather than sharing it between all children.

The report said that whichever party takes power after the May 7 general election should commit to ensuring that, by the end of the next parliament in 2020, all children from disadvantaged backgrounds are receiving their early education in institutions rated “good” or “outstanding”.

The committee also called for action to deal with the underfunding of free early education places at the private, voluntary and independent (PVI) nurseries which provide the majority of such places for three-year-olds.

Private nurseries have tended to cross-subsidise the under-funded free places by charging parents more for additional paid hours, leaving them “struggling to survive” in areas where there is low demand for extra hours, the report found. This results in a paucity of childcare provision in the most deprived areas, which impacts on the ability of parents to enter employment, the committee said.

Committee chairman Lord Sutherland of Houndwood said: “A large amount of money is spent on childcare and early education in England and we believe that better value for money could be achieved. The evidence clearly shows that high-quality early education has a crucial role to play in helping disadvantaged children to reach their full potential.

“For this group in particular the impact can be substantial. They are also less likely to access early education in the absence of the Government’s policy. Therefore greater value for money in terms of child outcomes is obtained by investing in early education for this group, than for all children.

“We are not talking about increasing budgets – we are talking about a re-prioritisation of current spending to ensure that it targets those children who are likely to benefit the most.”

The general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), Mary Bousted, said: “ATL welcomes the focus on childcare and early education.

“Our members are concerned at the increasing numbers of children starting school with little spoken language and other social skills. Ensuring money is best spent to support these children is of utmost importance.

“In ensuring that provision for two-year-olds is high quality, the Government must ensure there are well-trained, qualified professionals within all settings.

“However, the Government should not overlook nursery schools when they are reviewing funding; these are high-quality, professional-led settings which are currently being allowed to wither on the vine.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “We recognise childcare and early education is important for family budgets and school readiness as well as allowing parents to go back to work if they wish. That is why we have increased spending by £1 billion this parliament.

“We have shown repeatedly that we are committed to providing good quality, flexible and affordable childcare, to help give all children the best start in life regardless of their background.

“To narrow the attainment gap we are introducing the Early Years Pupil Premium and now offer 40% of two-year-olds from disadvantaged backgrounds 15 hours of free childcare a week, as well as for all three and four-year-olds.

“We now have more children accessing free early education than ever before. We will soon be offering working parents tax-free childcare worth £2,000 per child from birth as well as meeting 85% of childcare costs for families on Universal Credit.

“We have spent a record amount on childcare, but have said that funding alone isn’t enough. That is why we are helping good providers to expand and creating childminder agencies and are encouraging schools to offer facilities from 8am to 6pm.

“We have also increased an online benchmarking tool to ensure the funding goes straight to the front line. We are increasing our transparency with local authorities.”

Copyright (c) Press Association Ltd. 2014, All Rights Reserved.