So Euro 2016 is well under way. I have my team in the office sweepstake. Go, Czech Republic!
Think about all those hopeful nations and elite squads. Imagine the impassioned and agonising decisions that go into picking 11 men to grace the pitch for their country, at any one time.
Their skills are diverse and complimentary. They must work together to achieve success.
Here at NDNA we've just unveiled our own select XI. Not a football team but a list of key messages.
The Government asked the nursery sector for its views on 30 free hours, the forthcoming childcare and education entitlement for three and four-year-old children of working parents in England.
We asked our members - online and at events. We consulted our National Policy Committee, listened carefully and distilled what they said. We handed in our collective opinions to the Department for Education last week.
Pilots are starting in September but nurseries are worried that if they agree to double the free provision they offer, currently 15 hours per week, then funding may not add up and they'll risk incurring big losses and making their businesses unsustainable.
It's all up in the air like a powerfully chipped football.
So, here's our big line-up, our eleven recommendations for the smooth implementation of 30 free hours.
Here goes ...
- A sensible, sustainable funding rate is the key to encouraging nurseries to step up and offer 30 free hours. At present, poorly-funded free hours are cross-subsidised by fees charged to paying parents. As the vast majority of pre-schoolers aren't in nursery for more than 30 hours per week, the opportunity to charge for other hours is gone.
- Forthcoming changes under the Early Years National Funding Formula must result in a meaningful increase for nurseries which keep pace with rising costs, in particular the National Living Wage
- Early years funding must be ring-fenced within schools funding to make sure all this money reaches childcare providers and there must be a single rate for all funded hours, not one rate for the first 15 hours and another for the second 15 hours, as was proposed and rejected by nurseries for one pilot.
- The hourly funding rate must be increased to meet needs of children with special educational needs and disabilities and good support must be offered by local councils.
- A monthly payment system would improve cash flow for many providers where advance funding is not available.
- A model funding agreement with local authorities as recommended by NDNA is welcome to ease the administrative burden on providers.
- The rules around delivery of 30 hours must offer nurseries control in how to operate, including charges for extras such as lunch and access to free versus paid-for sessions.
- A grace period for parents who become ineligible for 30 hours is welcome to give stability to both children and providers.
- The opportunity to offer free hours all year round, not just in term-time, to meet the needs of working parents who can't always get time off in school holidays.
- Adequate funding for flexible childcare provision as this costs more for childcare providers to deliver.
- Finally, due to the current recruitment crisis in the sector, we urge the Department for Education to reinstate functional skills as equivalents to the GCSE requirements to enable more people to become level three qualified and attract more level two practitioners as a career of choice.
As you can see, eight of our 11 points are about money.
Currently, 89% of English nurseries are making a loss on funded places, with an average shortfall of £34,000 per year. See NDNA's Annual Nursery Survey for the full story on this.
With the increase from 15 to 30 hours, providers will no longer be able to recover the shortfalls in funding by increasing parental fees for additional hours or for younger children's places because they use an average of 20 hours per week.
And as seen by the initial response of nurseries in some of the early implementer areas, providers will be unable to participate if funding levels remain unsustainable.
We are confident that the Department for Education will look at these key issues through the pilots and create the right conditions for this beneficial policy to thrive, both for parents and providers.
Individually, our select XI wouldn't achieve much ... but together, combined? Well, they might just win it - and turn ambitious childcare reform into a fabulous reality.