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With expanded power and resources, local authorities can be central to the success of our childcare system

Cllr Louise Gittins, from Cheshire West and Chester Council, looks at how joined-up working between services, valuing the workforce, and expanding the role of local authorities will deliver a better childcare system.

Written by:
Cllr Louise Gittins
Date published:
Reading time:
7 minutes

Access to quality childcare is vital to support children’s development, to enable parents to work, and it is central to tackling inequalities. By the time disadvantaged young people sit their GCSEs at age 16 they are, on average, 18.4 months behind their peers and around 40% of that gap has already emerged by age five. Pre-school has almost as much impact on a child’s education achievement as primary school does, and the impact is even greater for those at risk of developing learning difficulties.

The impact of a comprehensive childcare offer on enabling parents and carers to access employment is equally important. For many, childcare is unaffordable. The average cost of a part-time nursery place for a child under two-years old now stands at £137.69 per week, or over £7,000 per year, and take-up of the two-year-old entitlement remains significantly lower than for the universal three-four year-olds offer. For households with an income of under £10,000, over half do not use formal childcare at all due to high costs. We also know that access to childcare is often not as flexible or as local as families need, particularly for those working non-regular shifts or in rural areas. We saw that during the Covid-19 pandemic, where providers closed, this was often more likely to happen in areas with large ethnic minority populations.

Disjointed policies leave us with a system that doesn’t meet our needs

The early years system is not one that has been designed with a clear outcome in mind. Is the focus on children’s outcomes or enabling parents to work? Both need to be considered, however the current situation is the result of disjointed policies being built on top of each other over time. This has left the early years system complex for families to understand and navigate. However, there is no strategic view of what England’s childcare system should look like, and how local partners and providers can work together to deliver for children and families.

Local authorities work hard to fulfil their statutory duty to ensure sufficient childcare. This duty requires local authorities to ensure the availability of sufficient childcare, as far as is reasonably practicable, and to provide information to families about early years and childcare. Local authorities are responsible for funding free childcare using funding formula set by central government which accounts for local variation.

However, it is a complex market for local authorities to manage. Local authorities must target their scarce resources to support early years providers who need it most, often meaning they focus on providers which are judged by Ofsted to be inadequate or require improvement. This means local authorities are unable to spot and respond to problems in quality at an early stage. In addition, local authorities have limited capacity to proactively engage and enhance the market. Explicit limits were placed on the council’s role in childcare provision by the 2006 Childcare Act. Councils should not provide places directly unless there are no private or voluntary sector organisations that are willing to do so. Furthermore, they may not be consulted when new provision is being set up.

What is the solution?

Joined-up working between services

There has been positive progress in recognising the importance of the early years, and the transformational impact that quality provision can have on children and their families, in the immediate and long-term. The progress made in the Best Start for Life review shows how building a vision for the youngest children can have a transformative effect.

Services cannot work in siloes. To ensure there is an effective early years education and childcare offer, early years services need to work closely with, and be supported by, other partners, such as health visitors and family support workers. Sometimes early years workers may be the main contact with families who are experiencing significant difficulty and they need to be recognised for this. Children’s centres, such as Sure Start centres and Family Hubs, show the impact that early intervention can have and how effective multi-disciplinary working can be. Early years education practitioners should be seen as partners with wider services.

This is particularly important for children with special educational needs and disabilities. The impact that quality early years provision can have on children with special educational needs is enormous, reducing the need for greater levels of intervention later down the line.

The strategic role local authorities play to support early years is essential. The early years provider market, from private and voluntary sector, to maintained nurseries, to school-based provision, can work well together if this is facilitated by local authorities. For example, we know that different sorts of provision will not be for every family - school-based provision may focus their early years places to school hours and not offer holiday provision, and thus do not meet the needs of the many working families requiring this. Local authorities know their local areas best and can work as system convenors to join up local services, identify where need is, and work with partners to improve outcomes for children and families.

Valuing the workforce

The workforce is essential to ensure that a high-quality provision is available for all children, and better pay is the first step needed to drive up quality. We know that the biggest difference that can be made to children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) is having a well-trained workforce that has the capacity to support children.

But everyone benefits from childcare workers being paid more. Rates of pay fail to recognise the vital work that childcare workers do and the important contribution they make to the future life chances of children. Childcare workers earn around 40% less than the average female worker and almost half (45%) of childcare workers claim state benefits. Councils are reporting an increase in the number of staff leaving the sector to work in better-paid jobs in hospitality or retail which supports previous research from the sector.

Local authority capacity to support the local workforce has changed over time in response to declining budgets. Recent Government investment in the early years workforce is welcome, but there is a need for a systematic approach to providing high-quality and affordable early education and childcare for all. Much of the recent investment into the early years workforce is coming too late after years of feeling undervalued and underpaid without a clear career pathway. There needs to be a holistic workforce strategy for the early years that can be adapted locally.

Expanding the role of local authorities can deliver a better childcare system

When parents can’t work, this has an impact on the local economy. Councils have an essential role in supporting the local workforce and ensuring the right skills are available locally. However, multiple organisations are currently responsible for employment and skills and this does not enable a coordinated local support offer. If councils were able to have a greater role in skills and employment locally, there would be joined up careers advice and guidance alongside outreach into the community and knowledge of the local system need. Therefore, local authorities would be able to support the early years childcare market, and understand the blockers to parents accessing work, joining up two different parts of the local system – childcare and work.

There are also tweaks to the system that would make it easier for families to navigate, or to access additional support, such as streamlining the current system of eligibility checking so that parents only confirm their eligibility once a year, or transforming the Tax Free Childcare system which is under used. Other parts of the system also require improvement, for example, to the Special Educational Needs Inclusion Fund (SENIF) and Disability Access Fund (DAF) and Early Years Pupil Premium. The LGA commissioned research into these in 2020 to understand their impact.

Tweaks to the current system will not tackle the wider challenges however. The early years system is complex, entitlements are not always going to the families that need them most, nor are they being used as effectively as they could. Ensuring equity of access to support, enabling local authorities to play their essential role in supporting the early years system and vulnerable families, and developing a fully funded system that balances both the need for childcare for families and the life-enhancing outcomes of early education is essential.

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