What’s the latest re: 30 hours free childcare or early education?

As you may be aware the 30 hours free childcare scheme, available to eligible families in England, has been getting media coverage this week – the children’s charity, the Pre-School Learning Alliance (PSLA) has said some childcare providers were struggling to remain open because of increased running costs. Here’s Employers For Childcare’s update on the issue.

What is ’30 hours free childcare’?

From September 2017 eligible working parents of three and four-year olds across England have been entitled to 30 hours per week of free early education or childcare over no fewer than 38 weeks per year. This equates to 1140 hours per year, doubling the previous allowance. Similar schemes are being piloted or planned in Wales and Scotland. This support does not, however, extend to Northern Ireland.

Parents have the choice of a ‘stretched offer’ so that the free hours are available outside of term time, however, this results in fewer hours being available over the course of a week.

Places may be offered by a range of providers including childminders, day nurseries, preschools or playgroups, schools and children’s centres, provided they deliver the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework.

Since the scheme’s launch, the Department for Education (DfE) states that the parents of more than 340,000 three and four-year-olds have benefitted.

What is the impact on childcare providers?

While this is good news for many working parents, there have been some concerns raised within the childcare sector regarding underfunding of these places. The Pre-School Learning Alliance (PSLA) has reported that some childcare providers are struggling to remain open because of increased running costs.

It has been suggested that insufficient funding is leading to childcare providers having no choice but to charge for ‘extras’ or put up costs outside of the ‘free’ offer. Providers are experiencing increases in their own costs, for example, with staff salaries going up due to a rise in the minimum and living wage.

For the scheme to be successful providers must be adequately resourced and supported to deliver quality early years care and education that is affordable and accessible in the long term.

What is the situation in Northern Ireland?

In Northern Ireland, parents of all three and four year-olds are entitled to a minimum of 12.5 hours per week of funded preschool education. Places are provided by nursery schools, primary schools with nursery units and some voluntary and private providers. The places cannot be provided by childminders.

These preschool places are provided by the Department of Education whose guidance stipulates that they are not to be regarded as childcare. Their primary purpose is to provide quality early years education to encourage children’s social, physical and mental development, while helping to prepare them for school.

The inflexibility of this provision, and the limited hours provided, mean it does not give the flexibility to parents that the system in England does.

The Government funded places in England recognise that quality early years education and childcare are not mutually exclusive. This system is designed to benefit parents who are able to access childcare flexibly, allowing them to work, and children who benefit from quality care that is educationally and developmentally enriching.

Are there any plans to extend the ’30 hours free childcare’ to Northern Ireland?

Childcare matters are devolved in Northern Ireland where, at present, childcare and early years education are viewed as two distinct policy areas. We believe the two are intrinsically linked and that investing in a childcare infrastructure which recognises this can secure the best educational outcomes for children as well as meeting the broader needs of families.

We would welcome a move that would give working parents access to additional hours of funded early years education and childcare coupled with enhanced flexibility in how this provision can be accessed. This would not only support the early development of children, but it would enable parents to access and stay in work.

We are keen to see learning from the experience in England taken on board in designing a childcare support infrastructure that works for Northern Ireland, with appropriate funding allocated to support childcare providers in delivering provision.

For more information on free preschool places in Northern Ireland, please see our factsheet or call 028 9267 8200 for free advice. You will also find information on the Department of Education website.