THE BLOG

Things Were Changing Fast For Early Years in 2016 - Yet The Same Old Problems Prevail

12/12/2016 15:57 GMT | Updated 12/12/2016 15:58 GMT

This year has been wildly unpredictable for UK and global politics.

Everything is different. Yet in many ways, little has changed - at least for the UK nursery sector, which is bracing itself for a watershed year ahead.

Early years care and education has been a hot topic all year, rarely off the agenda in our parliaments and offices of government.

The big news is that from September in England, three and four-year-olds of working parents will be eligible for 30 hours' Government-funded childcare, double the current 15. Similar systems for Scotland and Wales will follow in 2017.

The reasoning is to boost the economy and encourage more parents to work more hours.

However, the potentially bigger news is that many nurseries don't want to offer those places. The funding rates for many nurseries simply don't add up and would leave them operating at a significant loss.

As a result, thousands of families could end up struggling to find places.

The Childcare Act, heralding dramatic reforms, got its royal assent in March and since then the Department for Education has undergone further in-depth consultation with the nursery sector on the funding and practicalities involved in 30 hours.

Pilots got under way in eight local authority areas in September and on December 1 the Department for Education announced minimum hourly rates to local authorities of £4.30 per hour - which is not necessarily the rate that nurseries will receive.

At every turn, NDNA and the sector said the same thing: Nurseries need more money:

Nurseries need more money to deliver high quality early learning and care.

Nurseries need more money for nurseries to operate sustainably and balance their books.

Nurseries need more money to prevent fees for paying parents rising further.

Nurseries need more money to help offset the steeply rising business costs associated with National Living Wage, pensions auto enrolment and business rates.

There was a point in late September when NDNA concluded that the Government needed to stop thinking of these 30 hours, first promised by David Cameron in 2015, as free and start considering them as very well subsidised.

We put the spotlight on flexibility - if nurseries are allowed the flexibility to charge for anything over and above basic childcare, including food, they may just be able to make it work.

Arrangements for add-on fees are currently at the discretion of individual local authorities. As yet, NDNA has seen no progress on this issue.

So, still we present our strong message to the Government on 30 hours - put in more money or change the rules.

We have made progress this year.

The Government has taken up some of NDNA's recommendations, including equal funding rates with those received by schools, ensuring that councils pass 95% of Government money to childcare providers and effectively ring-fencing early years funds so they cannot be spent on anything else.

But as we pause briefly for Christmas, we know the sector has a long way to go to get what it wants and needs.

2017 will see NDNA battling every step of the way, consulting members constantly and keeping close relations with key politicians and policy members at the heart of Government.

30 hours can still work. It's not a lost cause. But for many nurseries, a better deal on funding or flexibility is needed before they say: "Yes, I'm in!"