Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch blogs about why working in partnership with parents is crucial if the early years sector is to secure fair funding now, and in the years to come.
It’s fair to say that, over recent times, we in the early years sector have had a lot to be angry about. From the government’s (failed) attempt to relax childcare ratios, to the implementation of the much-criticised childminder agency initiative, to the flawed Level 3 GCSE requirement which had such a devastating impact on workforce recruitment, over the past few years, it’s felt like almost every month has brought with it yet another ill-thought-out government policy. And of course, throughout all that, we’ve had to deal with the impact of the chronically underfunded ‘free entitlement’ offer too.
And yet, despite this, I have to say that in all my years working in the early years, I’ve never seen the levels of anger and frustration in the sector as high as they are at the moment.
The problem with 30 hours
Because while underfunding has been a problem for many, many years now, with the introduction of the 30 hours, the subsequent removal of many providers’ ability to survive through cross-subsidising and the government’s sheer unwillingness to listen to practitioner concerns, it feels as though the sector has reached a crunch point. How many times over recent weeks and months have we read about yet another childcare provider forced to close its doors? How many times have we read reports of yet another sharp decline in childminder numbers?
And yet still the government insists that the sector has more than enough funding, not only for today, but also for the years to come. It boasts of an extra £1 billion of funding going into the sector, while failing to mention that less than a third of this is actually going towards increased funding rates. It puts out statements that imply that providers are getting £4.94 an hour when in reality, some are getting less than £3.60. No wonder the sector is angry.
Who’s to blame?
But who exactly are we angry at? Central government, understandably, as it is they who are insisting on pushing forward with this fundamentally flawed policy. Many local authorities too have questions to answer about their approach to the 30 hours, the advice they are giving to settings on sustainability and the often overly-restrictive demands being included in provider agreements.
But what about parents? Over the past few weeks and months, I’ve seen and heard from providers an increasing amount of anger directed towards parents taking up the funded childcare offer – specifically, those who ‘walk in and demand their free entitlement’ or ‘complain about being ask to pay additional charges’. This frustration is, of course, completely understandable: these parents have little to no understanding of the impossible position that many providers are in.
But let’s look at this from the parents’ point of view. They’ve been told they are entitled to 30 hours of free childcare per week. Not funded. Not subsidised. Free. They’ve been told that childcare providers are receiving record levels of investment, that billions is being poured into the sector. It’s no wonder that they are often surprised and confused to be told that it’s not quite so simple.
The solution here isn’t anger, it’s education. We need to ensure parents to understand that there’s no such thing as ‘free childcare’, that the sector is at a crisis point, and that if their local provider has suddenly increased the cost of lunch, or trips, or nappies, it’s most likely because, if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be able to survive in the long term.
Parents as partners
We’ve made a good start, of course. The Alliance has been working tirelessly to raise the issue in the national and regional press, and it’s clear that general understanding of the issue is starting to improve. But there’s always more work to do. And providers talking directly to their parents to explain the challenge that the sector is facing is a vital part of this effort.
That’s why the Alliance produced a free infographic for providers to give to parents explaining the sector’s 30-hours concerns. That’s why we also recently produced a shareable interactive explainer to give parents a real insight into the impossible choices that many providers are being asked to make. And that is why, early this year, we extended our Fair Future Funding campaign to parents.
We must not underestimate the impact gaining the support of parents can have. Just look at the schools funding campaign: both schools and parents worked in partnership to put pressure on government, and as a result, the Department for Education recently announced a £1.5bn increase in schools funding.
Imagine if every single provider concerned about underfunding spoke to their parents about the issues, encouraged them to contact their local MP, to write a letter to their local paper, to sign up the Fair Future Funding campaign. It would send a message to government that simply could not be ignored.
Because as we learned from our successful campaign against ratio changes, when the sector speaks with one voice, we can be incredibly powerful – but when we speak with parents, we’re nigh on unstoppable.