Is 30 hours of free childcare worth fighting for?

Good childcare provision is more about quality than quantity, says Helen Barnard.

The Conservative’s flagship policy to give all families 30 hours of free childcare a week offered a ray of hope to working parents struggling to balance high childcare costs. But yesterday, the National Association of Headteachers said that plans to extend childcare could backfire, as a funding gap means nurseries may reduce the number of places they offer. New figures show that 80 per cent of schools with on-site nurseries already subsidise it from their main budget, because high-quality early years helps children to do better throughout their education. So, are head teachers right to say that early education has a long-term impact, and how worried should we be if schools start to reduce the early years childcare they offer?

The evidence shows that the quality of childcare is the most important factor affecting the impact it has on a child’s future chances. High-quality early education improves children’s school readiness and cognitive development, and the benefits are greater for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, for boys and for children with special educational needs. However, poor-quality early education does very little to boost children’s development. This is particularly important as just 40 per cent of children on free school meals reach a ‘good level of development’ by the end of their first year of school, compared to 60 per cent of their better-off classmates – the same gap as in 2007.

Headteachers are right to say that early-years education can have a positive impact on children’s whole education, and nurseries in schools are more likely to provide the high-quality that can achieve this. But detailed research suggests that, overall, a minority of children get early education of the standard that is needed to improve their development. This is particularly true of children going to private and voluntary sector nurseries in disadvantaged areas. The very low pay of early years workers is an important factor here.

Parents also continue to report that a lack of childcare holds back their employment – in 2013 a Department for Work and Pensions survey found that 54 per cent of parents with a youngest child aged zero to two, and 60 per cent with a youngest child aged three to four, wanted to find work or work longer hours. Childcare isn’t the only thing stopping them, but it is a major barrier for many.

This suggests that providing more high-quality and free or low-cost childcare could help boost children’s development, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and help parents’ employment prospects.

This could help to boost the UK’s economic performance too. Some suggest there would be a lifetime benefit of £11,000 per child from attending high-quality early education. However, spending scare resources on extending the free hours offer from 15 to 30 hours is not the right priority. Our evidence and forthcoming work with the Family and Childcare Trust suggests that it would be more effective to:

  • encourage a long-term shift to a fully-qualified, graduate-led and fairly-paid early years workforce; 
  • place stronger emphasis on family support;
  • change to a simpler system of childcare subsidies where most funding goes direct to the providers, parents pay a top-up based on their income and overall fees are capped.

Thirty hours of free, high-quality childcare could have a positive impact on some children’s development but it should not be the priority for extra spending on childcare. The three measures we propose could do much more to deliver a system of childcare and early education which would enable children to learn, parents to work and train, and would support our economy.