With its flagship scheme to offer free nursery schooling to disadvantaged children due to begin in September, the government has so far only found places for 75,000 children, some 55,000 short of its target of 130,000. Of the places found, 70,000 are on existing pilot schemes.
Intended to provide free part-time early education places to 20% of disadvantaged children by September 2013 and double this figure by 2014, the Achieving Two Year Olds (A2YO) scheme was announced by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in 2010. It is an extension of a Labour initiative intended to boost the educational achievement of children from low-income families and is available to children who:
According to James Hempsall, Director of Hempsall Consultancies who is overseeing the delivery of the scheme, local authorities, which now have a duty to provide the places, are generally confident of achieving the target by September. The focus was on finding vacant places and flexibility, for example by asking nurseries to add a third session to the normal morning and afternoon sessions. He said that local authorities would be able to plan their strategies once the Ministry of Education had supplied them with the names and addresses of the children involved. There was plenty of time to put the necessary arrangements into place. He added, however, that transport arrangements might have to be made for some children to attend centres outside their local authority boundary
Dr Jill Rutter of the Family and Childcare Trust is, however, less confident. She says that, in poorer areas where there is already less nursery provision, there is a real struggle to find places and there will probably be gaps this year and in 2014. She also noted that there is a geographical mismatch.
Dr Rutter’s views are supported by Local Government Association Chairman David Simmonds. He says that councils are determined to meet the target but are facing difficulties because some providers are reporting doubts that they can recruit sufficient nursery assistants or complete necessary building work in time. Struggling the most are parts of southeast England, Manchester, Birmingham and Bradford.
Financing could also be an issue. Dr Rutter says that in London, where she has recently carried out some research, 24,100 extra places are needed by September but many nurseries are at full capacity. Also, private providers have financed places for three and four year-olds because their working parents paid for additional hours for their children at a higher rate than the subsidised rate. The families of the children involved in the A2YO scheme will not be able to pay extra so many private and voluntary providers are choosing to refuse places for two-year-olds. (The Department for Education is offering nurseries £5.08 an hour per child).
For his part Neil Leitch, Chief Executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance remains sceptical. He says that there is little time left if a big gap between availability and need is to be avoided. He is uncertain if there is enough time for nurseries to train staff and increase building capacity and also believes that matters are complicated because the scheme is being funded by a grant made specifically for schools.
Commenting on the situation, Labour’s shadow Children and families minister Sharon Hodgson has said: “The childcare crisis created by David Cameron just gets worse. Parents who were promised free childcare will be shocked to learn that ministers have failed to ensure enough nursery places are available.”