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Changing the mix of childcare provision to meet families' needs

The current childcare system is not meeting the needs of all families, and some struggle to find what they want and need. Megan Jarvie, Head of Policy at Coram Family and Childcare, looks at what must be done to fill the gaps.

Written by:
Megan Jarvie
Date published:
Reading time:
7 minutes

At Coram Family and Childcare, we publish an annual Childcare Survey and in each of the 22 years it’s been reporting, we have found gaps in the availability of childcare. Last year 4 in 10 local authorities had gaps in availability for parents working full time, but the biggest gaps are always for disabled children. This forces parents like Antoinette, whose son has autism, to give up work and instead work fewer hours as a consultant simply because she cannot find childcare.

The childcare market in England is a mix of public and private providers, with schools providing education and care alongside private daycare settings. This division in types of providers speaks to the division we see in the aims that childcare is trying to achieve – between boosting the development of children before starting school, and enabling parents to work.

These aims do not need to contradict each other - both can be achieved simultaneously - but too often childcare policy and delivery divides between the two. School provision is far more likely to be led by a teacher and private provision is far more likely to offer the longer 8am to 6pm day which supports working parents. School based providers are linked into the wider education system with the mechanisms and structures that push up quality and children’s outcomes - but they may not be able to offer the hours that working parents need. 

The market limits choice for disadvantaged families 

These differences also mean that children from poorer households or with additional needs attend different types of provision than children from more wealthy households, driven in part by differences in local childcare landscapes. In deprived areas, school nurseries are more common compared to private providers, whereas in more affluent areas, the situation is reversed. School nurseries are more likely to be rated outstanding by Ofsted, meaning that often provision in deprived areas is often more likely to be rated outstanding. However, if the school setting is only open for a typical school day, it can limit parents’ ability to work.

When we looked at social mix in early years provision in London, we found that children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) and children from deprived backgrounds were far more likely to attend maintained settings. This can mean difficult choices for parents - do you prioritise teacher led provision that will support your child’s development? Or the provision that will allow you to take on work, or work in a job that makes use of your skills? It’s not a simple choice between what is best for you and what is best for your family – 3.9 million children live in poverty in the UK, with well-evidenced associated developmental and social impacts, and the risk of poverty decreases as parents work more.

The change families need is a system that enables all providers to be able to meet this range of needs. However, prioritising parent choice does not have to mean relying on market forces to create the childcare market. Doing so has left us with a system that provides a good service for families with ‘standard’ needs, but does not meet needs that veer from this standard – this year’s Childcare Survey found particular gaps for childcare with SEND (where only 21% of local areas had enough childcare), in rural areas (40%) or parents who work outside the typical nine to five (19%). The truth is, it is possible to meet the needs of some children more cheaply than others - and so the children and parents who stand to benefit the most from early education and childcare can miss out.

We need to remake the childcare system to meet everyone’s needs

The early education and childcare system needs to be structured on the principle that every child is able to access a place that is high quality and meets the whole family’s needs. The current problem is not the variation in who delivers childcare, but the variation in what is delivered. A higher funding rate is needed to achieve this change, but it will not be enough on its own.

Childcare funding and policy should deliver both better outcomes for children and enable parents to work. It is this dual purpose of childcare that is so exciting, and there's great practice in the market to build on. There are examples of school nurseries and nursery schools offering wraparound care that means the benefits of daycare hours along with teacher led provision. And there are examples of private providers who put quality at the heart of their work - my children attend a childminder setting, led by an early years teacher, supported by assistants, who feedback to me on how they are carefully monitoring and supporting both of my children’s development. But currently some places have better childcare options than others – for example, private provision is dictated by demand, which means that they are more common in areas of high employment.

Government – national and local – can build on what’s working to deliver a better system

In order make these examples of best practice become the norm, Government need to increase funding alongside requirements around quality and flexibility of provision. Settings need to be able to afford to pay wages that reflect the value of the work they are doing to support young children’s development - and they need to be required to do so. All settings need to be able to easily access responsive funding that allows them to meet the needs of children with SEND - and they need to be required to meet these needs.

Local authorities can play a key role in making this happen. They are a key point of contact for both parents and childcare providers, supporting parents to find the childcare that meets their needs and providers to increase their quality and sustainability. They already hold significant responsibilities for the local childcare market, but are often constrained from being able to fully realise this role by a lack of resources.

They effectively purchase the local funded early education places and are responsible for making sure that the local providers are following central Government guidance, such as making sure that families can access early years entitlements without facing compulsory additional charges. They also have a duty to make sure that there is enough childcare locally, including for working families and disabled children, and can step in as a childcare provider to fill any gaps. There can be friction between these two responsibilities: they are reliant on childcare providers to fulfil their sufficiency duty which can make it harder for them to hold these same providers to account on quality. Local authorities need to be better resourced in order to fully achieve the potential of these roles.

Give local authorities teeth to ensure quality and sufficiency

This should include working with Ofsted to make sure that meeting the needs of every child, including those with SEND, becomes a requirement of receiving any Government funding. While local authorities should support childcare providers to make the necessary adaptations for all children, they should also be able to withdraw funding when needed. Currently, they support families with disabled children to access childcare through their knowledge of which providers are best able to meet their needs; this should change to helping to raise standards across the board so that every provider is able to meet these needs.

To enable more parents to be able to make genuine choices about work and care, schools need the resources to offer wraparound care as standard, including guidance on overcoming the barriers to opening school buildings outside of school hours and the funding to make this possible. Where schools are not able to do this themselves, they should be supported to open up their space to private providers or work with other local providers, and childminders in particular, so that families can access a seamless full day of care. Local authorities can use their knowledge of the local childcare market to broker relationships between schools and other providers. This will mean parents are able to move into work, without having to change their child’s nursery.

Together these changes will make a huge difference for all families, but the most significant change will come for the children who are poorly served by the market based approach to childcare. Improving accessibility for children with SEND across the board will mean equal access for all children to early education and this vital boost to their outcomes. It will enable social mobility both by improving the outcomes of disadvantaged children and by meaning that parents are able to access the childcare that enables them to work. And this is all achievable - the building blocks of this system are already there.

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