Childcare Entitlements - Statement

– in the House of Lords am 7:37 pm ar 24 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities) 7:37, 24 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made yesterday in another place by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement on the successful first stage of the largest ever expansion of childcare in England’s history being made by this Government.

The Government have a strong track record of supporting parents with the cost of childcare, supporting disadvantaged children and ensuring that childcare is of high quality, with 96% of early years settings rated as good or outstanding by Ofsted. In 2010 we extended the three and four year-old entitlement, commonly taken as 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year; in 2013 we introduced 15 hours of free early education a week for disadvantaged two year-olds; in 2017 the three and four year-old entitlement was doubled to 30 hours per week for working parents; and in March 2023, recognising that childcare is one of the biggest costs facing working families today, my right honourable friend the Chancellor announced the biggest investment in childcare by a UK Government in history, so that by September 2025 working parents will be able to access 30 hours of free childcare a week from when their children are nine months old until they start school.

By the time this expansion is complete, parents using the full 30 hours can expect to save an average of £6,900 a year, a hugely significant saving for their family finances. We are staggering the expansion to ensure that there are the staff and places available to meet parental demand, and this month marked the first stage of the rollout, with eligible working parents now able to receive 15 hours of government-funded childcare for their two year-olds for the first time. Last month my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education informed the House that we expected 150,000 children to benefit from the expansion from the beginning of this month. As we set out in our official statistical report, 195,355 parents were already benefiting from this on 17 April, and we have subsequently broken the 200,000 mark. We will publish further official statistical reports in due course.

As Members will know, the system involves parents applying for a code that they take to a provider to be validated in order to obtain a place. The first phase of the rollout is showing a trajectory similar to that of our previous expansion of childcare, in 2017. On 5 September 2017, 71% of codes had been validated. As of 17 April this year, 79% had been validated by providers, and we have broken 81% as of this week. With every rollout, some eligibility codes go unused for a variety of reasons, such as parents changing their minds about formal childcare, or being issued with a code automatically even though they did not need one. In the case of our well-established offer for three and four year-olds, about 12% of codes have not been validated, but as with previous rollouts, we expect the number of children benefiting from this new entitlement—and the number of codes validated—to grow in the coming weeks and months.

As was the case in 2017, no local authorities are reporting that they do not have enough places to meet demand. I pay tribute to early years providers, local authorities, membership bodies and other key stakeholders who have worked closely with us to ensure that the first phase of the rollout was successful and parents could access places, and we will continue to work closely with them for the next phases of the rollout. The first of those will begin in September, but parents will be able to start applying for 15 hours of childcare for their nine month-olds from 12 May, ready to receive these in September. I am also delighted to announce that parents on parental leave, and those who are starting a new job in September, will be able to apply for childcare places from 12 May, instead of having to wait until 31 days before their first day of work, as has been the case until now.

Delivering such a large expansion requires more staff and more childcare places. We estimate that we will need 15,000 more places and 9,000 more staff by September 2024, and that for September 2025, which will see the largest phase of the rollout, a further 70,000 places and 31,000 staff will be needed. Last year the number of childcare places increased by about 15,000, and the number of staff by about 13,000, even before the rollout began and before the significant steps that the Government are taking, beginning with rates, to increase capacity in the sector.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies has independently confirmed that funding for the new two year-old entitlement is significantly higher than average parent-paid fees. According to the Government’s provider pulse survey published last week, the largest barrier identified by the sector—by 45% of respondents—to expansion of its provision was future funding certainty, a message that I have heard clearly from the many providers I have visited in recent months. In his 2024 Budget, the Chancellor committed to ensuring that funding rates for all entitlements would increase by the measure used last year in the 2025-26 and 2026-27 financial years. That estimated £500 million of additional funding over those two years will provide a level of certainty that we are confident will help to unlock tens of millions of pounds in private sector investment, ensure that rates keep up with provider cost pressures, and give providers a greater opportunity to increase staff pay.

This year, to support recruitment to the sector, we launched a £6.5 million recruitment campaign titled “Do something BIG. Work with small children”, and thousands of people are visiting the campaign website every week to find out more about the great early years and childcare careers that are available. In January we introduced changes to the early years foundation stage to give providers greater flexibilities to attract and retain staff, and yesterday we launched a technical consultation setting out the department’s proposals for how a new experience-based route could work for early years staff who have relevant experience from other sectors but do not have the full and relevant qualifications that we require.

Due to the falling birth rate over recent years, some primary schools have space that they are no longer using, and some have closed entirely. In order to support our expansion of childcare, we have launched a pilot to explore how some of the unused school space could be repurposed to enable childcare settings to offer more places. If the pilot is a success, the Government will roll that out more widely.

Our progress in delivering this transformative expansion in early education and childcare underscores this Government’s unwavering dedication to empowering families, supporting the childcare sector, and building a prosperous future. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Photo of Baroness Twycross Baroness Twycross Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 7:46, 24 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, I welcome the opportunity for us to discuss the Statement made yesterday in the other place. I thank the Minister for repeating it today in your Lordships’ House. Noble Lords present are probably united in thinking that the Government’s aspiration in expanding free childcare is welcome. However, unfortunately, it appears that currently only the Government believe that their flagship policy is on track.

My first question to the Minister is: why are Ministers proactively bringing a Statement to Parliament to say that everything is on track, when the Government’s own auditors are now saying otherwise, without the Government acknowledging that there are issues? When I suggested yesterday at Oral Questions that the policy was in trouble, the Minister stated that

“it is a huge success

I woke up to headlines that indicated that I was not far off. In light of the report published today by the National Audit Office, will the Minister accept that the policy is, at the very least, at risk of not going to plan? Even the Telegraph is reporting that parents are facing worse childcare under this Government’s childcare expansion.

Are the Government still guaranteeing that every eligible child has a spot now, that every eligible child will have a spot later this year, and that every eligible child will have a spot in September next year? Are parents getting the savings that they have been promised? Why have the Government repeatedly dismissed genuine concerns about the rollout of the plan, when the problems are so clear and stakeholders across the board are highlighting the same problems?

Even the DfE has the expansion as its top programme risk, with risks including insufficient places, operational infrastructure not being ready, insufficient parental demand and an unstable market. When will the Government make a formal response to the NAO’s report? Furthermore, could the Minister confirm that the DfE has itself

“assessed its confidence in meeting milestones beyond April 2024 as ‘problematic’”?

Does she agree with the NAO that the extension does not “achieve its primary aim” or demonstrate “value for money”? How did the DfE think it was appropriate to set dates for expansion without engaging with the sector or understanding local authorities’ and providers’ capacity? Will the Government act on the NAO’s recommendations about continuously reviewing the achievability of the 2025 milestones and will they now publish interim performance thresholds?

I return to the point I made to the Minister yesterday: the DfE’s own pulse survey from last week found that 45% of childcare and early years providers said it was unlikely that they would increase the number of places they offer to under-threes as a result of the Government’s childcare expansion. The NAO estimates there is in fact a net reduction in places—albeit just a 1% reduction —since 2018, but this is at a point at which we need a significant increase in places. Could the Minister outline what the DfE’s plan is if it accepts that it will struggle to reverse this trend, if it finds that the providers simply cannot afford to offer free places, or the one in three nursery and pre-school providers that the Early Years Alliance says are at risk of closure simply do not survive? This would potentially put 184,000 places in jeopardy. How does the Minister explain the disparity between what the Government say and what the sector, parents and councils, and now the NAO, are saying?

The Statement repeated today states confidently that

“no local authorities are reporting that they do not have” sufficient “places to meet demand”. This is very different from the National Audit Office view that only 9% of areas are confident that they will have enough places. To clarify this point, I contacted the Local Government Association, which told me that councils have reported greater concerns about the next stages of the expansion, where it will extend to children and families who would not previously have accessed childcare to this extent. It is deeply concerned about provision for families that require a different range of childcare options, such as outside traditional hours, or families for children with SEND.

The Coram Family and Childcare survey found that England has seen reductions in the availability of childcare in all categories. Worryingly, the greatest reductions have been in childcare for disabled children, which I understand is now at 6% sufficiency. Can the Minister say why this is the case and what the Government will be doing to remedy this? Local authorities are also concerned about recruitment, particularly because of the higher ratios required for under-twos. They are concerned about the lack of sufficient level 3 qualified staff in the sector. Is the Minister confident that recruitment is on track?

There is broad consensus on the need for a decent childcare and early years offer, including increasing free hours. It is a shared ambition across political parties to have an improved system that works for parents and carers and delivers the best start in life for children. Labour genuinely wants better childcare and early years provision. We have commissioned a review by Sir David Bell to assess a way forward. We want a well-planned, well-designed system that delivers for children and improves the offer to parents.

I am confident that the Minister also wants a system that works, but the first step in this instance to getting that has to be for the Government to accept that there are problems, and work to get this scheme back on track. I look forward to her response as to how, in light of the serious risks facing this flagship government policy, the promised expansion in free childcare and early years provision will be delivered.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her detailed Statement. I would guess that all of us aspire to the aspirations that she espoused on childcare. The issues that we are concerned about—and they concern a number of people—are around whether this can be delivered. I listened to the Statement with great care and the words that were missing were not about numbers but about quality. I have always believed, as my party always has, that it is not just about providing childcare. It has to be quality childcare—and I did not get a sense of that in the Minister’s Statement. There are a number of issues. She mentioned pay, quite rightly, but it is about training as well.

As we have heard, the National Audit Office has raised concerns that plans to extend free nursery provision could compromise—again, that word—the quality of childcare as the sector expands to meet demand. The NAO cautioned that hiring inexperienced staff and a lower supervision ratio for two year-olds could undermine childcare quality. There are also worries about whether inspections by Ofsted would identify issues early enough. The NAO has highlighted concerns about the Department for Education’s confidence in delivering required places, with only 34% of local authorities expecting to have enough places by this September. On the other hand, the Minister has painted an extremely positive picture of rollout. It will be interesting to see who is right.

This ministerial Statement did not mention or address the up-and-coming report and findings, which have been described as utterly damning by the early years sector. The Government must address the findings of this report urgently. The report concludes that there is a risk posed by

“the lack of contingency and flexibility” in the Government’s “fixed, ambitious timetable”. It is therefore important that clarity and reassurance is provided quickly on how they will address the report’s findings. Families across the country will struggle to plan their arrangements if certainty over the next phase of the rollout is not provided.

Only 17% of nursery managers said that they could offer the extended entitlement, due to the crisis of recruitment and retention. What will the Government do to address this recruitment and retention issue?

Finally, I was interested to hear about the campaign to use unused schools. The Government want to set up what I think they call “in-home nurseries” to create some of the 85,000 places needed. How many schools will be used in the pilot scheme that the Minister told us about? If the scheme is successful, how many schools do they think they will be able to finally use?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I thank both noble Lords for their questions and for sharing, as we all do across this House, the ambition for all children, as we know the importance of a great start in life.

I will start, if I may, where the noble Baroness did in relation to the National Audit Office report and her question, which was echoed by the noble Lord, about when we will respond to the National Audit Office formally. I can give the House some sense of that today but, in terms of timing, we will also be giving evidence on this subject to the Public Accounts Committee on 8 May—so our plan is to respond to both the NAO report and the Public Accounts Committee in the normal way.

On the NAO report itself, I absolutely understand why both noble Lords rightly raise its challenging aspects, but it is also worth noting some of the more positive aspects. The NAO report identifies that the programme has been fundamentally successful in the rollout so far, meeting and actually surpassing the April 2024 objective. It confirms that the trajectory and take-up of this expansion in entitlement is the same as previous expansions. It also notes that it expects that the number of places being taken up will continue to grow and notes the phased introduction of the new entitlement.

On the recommendations, the noble Baroness opposite raised the achievability of the September 2025 milestone, whether the department would be setting interim performance thresholds and how we would respond with corrective action, if needed. Of course, we continually review the deliverability of the programme. We have a local authority delivery team; we have our insight unit, which analyses the data; and we have pulse surveys, stakeholder groups and provider groups, so we are really well connected into the sector. We have set a series of milestones that cover local authority readiness, sufficiency and workforce and, by the end of June, we will set regularly spaced performance thresholds. We will use those to assess the growth of capacity places and the workforce. Of course, those can and should be updated as needed, as we get live data in.

By the end of June this year, we will agree a set of staged corrective actions, if those actions are needed. To support that, we will also use our data better. We regularly update both our supply and demand modelling, and we share that directly with local authorities. We have a set of KPIs for the programme, which we monitor regularly.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, raised a point about the quality of staff and the risk that, with less experienced staff, the quality might suffer. We do not really accept that. Back in 2021 we made major reforms in early education, which the noble Lord will remember. These were designed to improve outcomes for all children, but particularly for disadvantaged children and children with special educational needs. In October last year we published the evaluation report of those reforms, which showed that practitioners have really benefited.

As we continue with the rollout, we will be looking at the availability and quality of places for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Similarly, for those with special educational needs and disabilities, we will be looking at what the impact is if we see new providers and staff entering the market.

We have also commissioned and funded the children of the 2020s study, which collects longitudinal data on elements that influence cognitive and social and emotional development during early childhood. Obviously, we will share that data.

Deliverability was a key part of both noble Lords’ questions, and the workforce is a critical part of that. It is fair to say that, where we are further away from a delivery deadline, it is not unreasonable that confidence in readiness might be lower. Looking at where we were in November in our pulse survey and what providers were saying about their readiness for April, 65% of them said that they were ready. By the March survey, one month ahead of the extension, that figure had risen by 16 percentage points to 81%. That is just normal.

It is also important to note that all types of providers that took part in our pulse survey have increased their capacity in the last year by over 20% for group-based and school-based providers. The figure is rather more for childminders although, as your Lordships know, they represent a smaller part of the market. On applications, for group-based and school-based providers, the number of applicants to vacancies is now on average five to one, which is a really healthy and promising indicator for the future.

The noble Lord also talked about retention, which is clearly critical. It will be important to improve retention in order to reach our objectives. The additional funding, the visibility of funding and the ability of providers to plan will make recruitment and opportunities in this sector more attractive, but there is work to do to deliver that.

The noble Lord also asked about the number of schools. We are working in a small number of areas with those schools to build a template of what might work. We will test that and, if it is successful, roll it out.

The noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, asked about wraparound care outside formal hours. In the Spring Budget last year, we announced £289 million to support the expansion of wraparound childcare for primary school-aged children.

Finally, the noble Baroness rightly raised concerns over this programme delivering for children with special educational needs. She will remember from my remarks yesterday that we are conducting a review of how the special educational needs inclusion fund works to make sure that it is as good as it can be.

We have chosen a phased approach to make sure that we learn as we go along with the implementation of this expansion, but we are doing everything we can to make sure that it is a success.

Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Llafur 8:05, 24 Ebrill 2024

My Lords, the Minister began by saying that this is the biggest expansion in childcare, and she is right; we share those ambitions. But it is because it is the biggest expansion we have experienced in childcare that the NAO report is so worrying.

Among the things the report says, in many different ways, is the difficulty the DfE has in getting the right data to plan properly. While I have listened to what the Minister said about how the DfE will respond, with better benchmarks and so on, I find it very difficult to know how it will do that given the quality of data. I will quote from page 33 of the report:

“Given limited engagement, DfE does not know the market’s willingness and capacity to increase places … There remain uncertainties over whether the sector can expand”.

If you take that set of uncertainties, it becomes clearer why this is the DfE’s top risk. The risks have already been enunciated by my noble friends. They include risks to places, operational infrastructure, insufficient parent demand and an unstable market. That is an extraordinary range of risks. The risk register must be glowing red. Can the Minister share the risk register with us so that we can see where the DfE sees the greatest risks coming from and what the responses will be? If she cannot do that, maybe she can explain how the risks identified are being addressed on a systematic basis.

I turn to the conclusion of the NAO report. It says that the DfE

“has assessed its confidence in meeting milestones beyond April 2024 as ‘problematic’. It must now use available data to understand when it needs to intervene”.

But, as I said, if the quality of data and access to data are so limited, how will the department do that?

The conclusion ends:

“In extending entitlements, the government’s primary aim is to encourage more parents into work. Even if DfE successfully navigates the significant uncertainties”, which are documented throughout the report,

“it remains unclear whether the extension will achieve its primary aim, represent value for money and not negatively impact DfE’s wider priorities relating to quality and closing the disadvantaged attainment gap”.

Each of those phrases carries tremendous weight, particularly the last one about the attainment gap. How are the Government going to respond credibly to that set of very authoritative statements?

Finally, I have a general point. The NAO report is a reality check. I have every sympathy with the Minister and with the DfE in trying to deliver this, because it is a huge challenge. One of the reasons for that is that it is an object lesson in how not to make policy. The Government did not consult the providers early enough or get an understanding of what the market was like on the ground. They did not address the historical underfunding, as we discussed when we debated this last November, which was built into the system from 2013 onwards, and did not understand the lack of resilience in the sector. The Minister talked about retention and recruitment but, in fact, between 2018 and 2023 an increase of only 5% was achieved in recruitment and retention. The target for the coming years is much higher.

This is a very serious report, and it is going to demand from the department a very serious and credible reply. The real risks are the risks to parents, who want and need to be able to count on this service, and to children, who need quality provision, which they are not likely to get unless investment is properly guaranteed and targeted.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I have to say that I did not agree with everything that the noble Baroness asserted. To start with the risk register, it is not glowing red, but it is of course a priority risk for the department. The noble Baroness understands this extremely well from her previous experience. We are doubling the commitment in this area financially: we will spend £8 billion a year once this rollout is complete, from £4 billion today. That is a massive increase, and it is a real challenge in a market with a number of small providers and with the way in which, rightly, we work through local authorities and providers. So it would be irresponsible—and I think that the noble Baroness would be criticising the Government—if it was not a significant risk for the department. But that means that it gets a great deal of focus, and there are very detailed plans to support it.

As for consulting the sector, I slightly take exception to what the noble Baroness said. The department works very closely with the sector, providers, parents and local authorities, and it is crucial that we do, because we are committed to getting this right.

As for the willingness of providers, and the point that the noble Baroness picked from the report about our understanding of willingness and capacity, as I pointed out earlier, capacity for all types of provider rose by over 20% last year. That is very significant, as I am sure that the noble Baroness agrees. On the point about willingness, almost 40% of group-based providers, 33% of school-based providers and 42% of child minders said that they would be more likely to offer places to children under three, given this expansion. About half of them—it is slightly different, but I shall not bore the House with all the numbers—said that those would be additional places, so they would not be substituting an older child with a younger child.

Where I absolutely agree with the noble Baroness is that this is a very serious report. We take it very seriously, and we will respond in full.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, like every other speaker, I have read with concern the National Audit Office report, which talks about the lack of qualified staff and suitable space, which could have an impact on the quality of provision. I share the concerns about qualified staff, but we have not had much discussion about the suitable space side of the issue. The Minister may have to write to me later, but it would be interesting to know how many of these are actually new facilities, how many facilities are closing— we are still hearing reports of facilities closing—and what the comparative quality of the space of the new provision is.

One thing that I was thinking about, which is something that the Minister and I have discussed before, is access to green space. We are increasingly understanding how terribly important that is for the health and well-being of everybody, but particularly young children. What percentage of the new provision is in places that have access to space? Is expanding the number of places reducing the amount of access to green space per child? What information do the Government have about the quality of the spaces of these new provisions? That is something that the National Audit Office has brought to our attention, and it really deserves more focus.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

On building capacity, the department has awarded £100 million to local authorities to help expand capacity. On the quality of space, as the noble Baroness knows, early years settings are regulated by Ofsted. It has very clear standards that they have to meet, and we expect them to meet them.

Photo of Baroness Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent Baroness Anderson of Stoke-on-Trent Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, the NAO report suggests that many of the issues and challenges that we have heard about this evening would have been mitigated if the Government had not cancelled the £35 million pilot. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us why we cancelled the pilot and what assessment has been made for phases 2 and 3 of the scheme, having not done it.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

The noble Baroness hits on perhaps the one thing on which we do not accept the recommendation from the National Audit Office. We made a decision not to run the pilot because we did not think that it would contribute meaningfully to readiness or provide value for money. The key decision we took was that this would be a phased rollout, so that local authorities, providers and parents all had time to adapt. We are continuing to test and review delivery on an ongoing basis; we are piloting different interventions to support workforce expansion through financial incentives in 20 local authorities. What we found from the evaluation of the 2017 rollout was that providers were willing to offer more hours, and were able to offer sufficient hours, and that there were no adverse impacts on other provision. We also found that providers were really flexible. We are very fortunate to have providers that are so focused on outcomes for parents and, of course, for their children.

Sitting suspended.