THE BLOG

Now Is Schools' and Nurseries' Chance to Unite - and Rewrite the Rules

16/09/2015 15:53 BST | Updated 16/09/2016 10:12 BST

So, the Government aims to offer three and four-year-old sons and daughters of working parents in England 30 free childcare hours per week as early as next year.

The big question is how the Chancellor, George Osborne, will find the money to make this doable and, crucially, sustainable in the longer term. I've written lots about this before.

But another big question is, who has the space?

At present, three and four-year-olds get 15 free hours per week, term-time. Some go to school nurseries, others attend private, voluntary and independent nurseries and childminders.

NAHT, the school leaders' union, has now spoken up. It has the same concerns as NDNA about the hourly rates our nurseries can expect to deliver this doubling of free hours.

We were both quoted in the Guardian and the Mirror last week, talking about the issues.

NAHT warns that schools don't have the capacity, unless they can get capital funding for extensions. And if that's forthcoming, they need time to build and get ready. For schools, providing more hours could mean offering fewer places for children.

Many private, voluntary and independent nurseries, meanwhile, are in a slightly different position. There is room in many. We have an estimated 190,000 free places across the country.

As long as Government funding is sufficient, by which we mean we are not expected to offer more loss-making provision, we can unlock these places.

Some people think that that schools offer a better early years educational experience than private nurseries. The truth is, both are great. Standards are rising, across all types of providers.

The vast majority of NDNA members employ teachers, as schools do. NDNA's Workforce Survey 2015 found 88% of settings have at least one graduate Early Years Teacher or Early Years Professional staff.

Among the 87% of nurseries rated 'excellent' or 'good' by Ofsted are plenty who don't have teachers onsite. In comparison, 86% of primary schools are rated 'excellent' or 'good' which makes us all pretty much equal.

Where private nurseries can be at an advantage to schools is their established culture of longer hours and greater flexibility for working parents and their knowhow as early years specialists.

Nurseries are used to opening for 10 hours or more, every day, to allow for parents' commutes. They focus on under 5s whereas primary schools' biggest area of operation is with over 5s.

What if more schools and nurseries got together to combine their skills and expertise?

Childcare reform offers a real opportunity for new partnerships - a chance to do things differently and rewrite the rules.

I'm imagining a sharing of expertise in whatever way works in terms of placing all the pieces of the early years jigsaw in a given geographical area.

Private and public sector providers, different yet equal, could work together, rather than struggling to provide the whole package alone.

For the Government's huge expansion of free childcare to work, the absolute whole of the sector - schools, private nurseries and voluntary and independent providers - has a significant role to play.

Though some nurseries and schools do already operate in partnership in some respects, this sort of thinking on a national scale would require a real step change, fresh networks and open minds among everybody who works in early years.