Jo Morris, nursery manager at Playsteps in Swindon, discusses what she makes of the 30-hour pilot whilst it’s being trialled in her setting. She describes the obstacles her nursery has faced so far in offering the additional hours to parents and how she’s managed to overcome them.
Seven weeks into the 30-hour pilot, we’re beginning to see some of the challenges and benefits we’ll see with the full roll-out in September 2017. This is when 400,000 families will become eligible for the Government’s offer of 30 hours “free” childcare for 3- and 4-year olds.
1.Managing parents’ expectations
Most parents don’t realise that there are criteria they need to meet for the additional hours. The headlines shout out ‘30 hours free childcare for 3-and 4-year-olds’ however they don’t mention eligibility criteria. Understandably, parents want these free hours but we’ve had work to do in our setting in order to explain the criteria. We’ve written to parents explaining this and asked them to contact us with any queries they might have.
2.Increasing hours for eligible families at short notice
We’ve been able to increase hours this term but for parents becoming eligible in January or April, it will be much harder because they’re our busiest terms.
Going forward, we will not be able to guarantee to increase a family’s hours if they become eligible. We know we may lose some children if we cannot increase their hours, but this protects us from a loss if we hold 30-hour places in our pre-school for all children only to find that some aren’t eligible or do not want all 30 hours. For next year, we’ll be making this really clear on our registration forms and funding contracts.
3.Understanding the demand for increased hours from next year
The next step we’ll need to take is to send a questionnaire to parents who may become eligible for the 30 hours next year, to give us an idea of how many additional funded hours we may need to deliver.
4.Minimising the financial loss as the funding rate is lower than our hourly rate
The biggest threat to sustainability is the word ‘free’ in the entitlement. Increased ‘free’ childcare undoubtedly benefits parents and employers but this must NOT be at an additional cost to providers. As a nursery manager running a private business, my main priorities are ensuring that we deliver high quality provision and that we remain financially sustainable.
Childcare is expensive to buy because it’s expensive to provide. Highly qualified staff, DBS checks, ratios, increases in the National Living Wage and staff pensions all impact on staff costs – arguably the biggest outlay for any setting. Add to this increases in costs associated with running any business: utilities, rent, rates, staff training, maintenance, consumables (to name a few) and it’s clear that quality provision for our little ones doesn’t come cheap!
We cannot charge top-ups or attach any conditions to a free place, so we looked at the Code of Practice and the EYFS statutory requirements to see what we have to provide within the funded hours. Then, we identified all the parts of our provision that are additional to that including food, nappies and sundries, extra-curricular activities and learning journeys.
We’re designing a package of additional services which parents can choose whether to purchase or not. As long as we make it clear on their contract that they have a choice, we’ll be operating within the Code whilst remaining sustainable.
We’ll also be limiting the number of places that we offer without the additional services. Once those places are full, then parents can choose the additional services package or we’ll help them find other local settings who are offering fully-funded sessions.
One of our eligible families increased to the full 30 hours all year round, so this had a positive impact on occupancies. Another eligible family chose not to increase their hours, which shows there may not be as high a demand for the additional hours as anticipated.
Going forward, instead of having 2x 15-hour children, we’ll have 1x 30-hour child which means one set of assessments, halving the amount of paperwork and reducing the number of key children per staff member. This does, however, raise the concern that children who are only eligible for 15 hours may struggle to find a nursery place, as settings may prefer to offer 1x 30-hour place rather than 2x 15-hour places.
3. Improved outcomes for children
Some children will attend more as a result of the 30-hour offer, which provides increased opportunities to build attachments with key carers and peers. This may have a positive impact on their outcomes.
The Key Messages so Far
We’re a resilient sector, we live through seemingly endless changes in regulation and legislation, adapting to a 30-hour offer is yet another change for us but so far the message from providers in the pilot seems to be that charges for additional services are the way to ensure we remain within the Code of Practice and sustainable.
So, be confident about what your setting can offer and promote the packages that you want parents to take. Remember that the Code of Practice sets out an expectation that parents can access their funded hours in a variety of ways, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ approach. If some parents don’t wish to choose to pay for the additional services you’re offering, then you may not be the setting for them, but you’ll certainly be offering what other parents are looking for. Don’t try to be all things to all people, it won’t end well!
These additional hours are being brought in under the Childcare Bill; once again our remit has been manipulated to suit the current political message. It seems that anything to do with outcomes for children sees us deemed as ‘Early Education’, whereas anything to do with getting parents back to work sees us deemed as ‘Childcare’. So, at the moment, we‘re ‘Childcare’ but Ofsted will still judge us on our outcomes for children. We’re not going to get ‘outstanding’ just because all of our parents have gone back to work! As early years providers, we put the children at the heart of all we do; this 30-hour offer won’t change that.