David Dallimore says Wales will be left behind England when it comes to childcare provisions.
It might not have won them the election, but the Conservative’s manifesto commitment to 30 hours of free childcare probably got them some votes in Wales, even though the policy only affects England. But with the Assembly elections less than a year away, the political parties in Wales will find it difficult, if not impossible, to match the offer announced in the 2015 Summer Budget and will therefore risk the ire of hard-working, hard-pressed parents in Wales looking enviously over the border. So why would more free, flexible childcare be so difficult to deliver?
In England, there is an open market in early education and childcare. Parents can choose to use their entitlement of 15 hours of free provision for 38 weeks a year in day nurseries, in pre-schools, with some childminders or, in a few areas, in nursery schools or classes. The 15 hours allowance can be used flexibly by parents, so they can, for example, use their allowance for 2 ½ full days or five half-days per week in a day nursery, and they can spread the allowance out across the year or use it just in term-time. In essence, the focus on England has been around supporting working parents, but arguably less on the quality of provision. The Childcare Bill, announced in the 2015 Queen’s Speech, would double the current 15 hours of early years education / childcare entitlement for all the three and four-year-olds of working parents in England.
In Wales, we have a very different system, which arguably provides better quality experiences for children, but has resulted in a very inflexible system for working parents. Essentially, children in Wales start school earlier than their counterparts in England, entering reception classes in the September of the year in which they are four, so they’re already getting the equivalent of the 30 hours of ‘free childcare’ that’s being proposed for their counterparts in England. However, whether parents perceive this as free childcare, is a problem of presentation, but for working parents the offer still causes headaches as children are tied to provision in their local school, relatively short school hours and long school holidays.
The situation for younger children is less generous, with a high degree of inconsistency across Wales.
All three-year-olds in Wales are entitled to part-time ‘nursery education’ provision which is funded by Welsh Government for just 10 hours per week (as opposed to 15 hours in England). Again, most children in Wales are in school, with 83% of schools taking part-time 3 year olds. While this might provide good quality provision, the downside is a lack of flexibility. Schools commonly operate a morning nursery class from 9.00 until 11.30am for one set of three-year-olds and then another from 12.30 until 3.30pm. You can imagine the headaches that this causes for working parents. Many experts also have concerns over very young children being in schools where the focus is on education rather than care. In the most deprived areas, the Flying Start programme provides a small number of two and three-year-olds with 12 ½ hours of integrated childcare and education for that’s available across 42 weeks per year – rather than the usual 38 weeks of the school year. But, even though most Flying Start childcare is delivered by voluntary or private providers and not in schools, the evidence shows that it is still inflexible for working parents and, crucially, those parents who would like to work.
So, it’s a mixed picture in Wales, where what’s being offered already is in some respects more generous than the current offer in England. So why might parents feel so aggrieved when they look over the border at what’s being proposed?
The ‘free childcare’ / early years education offer in Wales is less than is being promised in England, and it rarely fits with normal working hours. But increasing the offer or making childcare more flexible is not easy. The cost of delivering extra hours in schools would be very high. There are also capacity issues in many schools, and schools are notoriously inflexible in their hours. Meanwhile, there are relatively few day nurseries outside of the main urban areas of Wales and few voluntary pre-school playgroups that would be able to offer extended provision as they do in England.
As well as practical problems in delivering more ‘free childcare’, there are ideological barriers. Priorities are different in Wales. Early years provision in Wales has focused on the developmental needs of young children. The Foundation Phase and Flying Start are founded on evidence of what makes the greatest difference to children’s life chances, but they’re costly strategies. Compare the £5.62 an hour that a childcare provider in England receives for a ‘deprived’ child compared with £11.32 for a Flying Start childcare place in Wales.
There has also for long been a deep mistrust of the private childcare sector in Wales which has resulted in a very under-developed and inconsistent childcare market with limited capacity. The consequence is that we have quality state provision but it’s at the price of a minimum universally acceptable childcare offer. And it can be argued that the current Welsh Government policy actually contributes to the persistence of child poverty as the lack of accessible, flexible childcare means that many parents with young children are excluded from taking up work opportunities. It’s particularly limiting for women as the cost and scarcity of childcare often means that mothers do not return to work after having children, losing out on longer-term financial and career opportunities. Unsurprisingly, Wales has the lowest rate of female employment in Great Britain. But, despite this, Welsh Government has no long-term vision for early childhood. Instead, there is a patchwork of provision, projects and development that tinkers with a system that doesn’t work for parents and, evidence suggests, has limited benefits for children.
Tackling the childcare problem in Wales within a constrained budgetary environment and in the context of the patchwork of provision we already have is a considerable challenge. But in the context of the coming Assembly elections all the political parties need to present voters with a coherent long-term policy for early childhood that does not discard the gains that have been made in targeting those most in need, but provides every family in Wales with affordable, accessible and high quality early childhood education and care.