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Thousands of disadvantaged two-year-olds miss out on free childcare places

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Author: 
Quinn, Ben
Publication Date: 
3 Sep 2017
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The government's childcare record has come under renewed fire this weekend after it emerged that large numbers of children in some of the country's poorest areas are missing out on a flagship programme introduced by the coalition government to give disadvantaged two-year-olds a better start in life.

The scheme, to provide 15 hours free childcare for 40% of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds, was introduced four years ago. Yet nearly three in 10 children are still not getting the places intended for them, according to research by a leading thinktank and the Labour MP Lucy Powell.

While 229,928 children are eligible for the scheme, the latest statistics from government show that 29% are still missing out - a total of 66,000 children.

Additional analysis by Powell's office and the Social Market Foundation (SMF) found that disadvantaged two-year-olds in the most deprived areas are twice as likely to miss out on free childcare designed to to help with their development than their counterparts in more affluent areas.

Many of the target parents seem to be unaware of the scheme. Powell blamed a lack of ministerial focus, austerity measures which had reduced local authorities' roles and cutbacks in programmes such as Sure Start, which meant that resources were not being put into "signposting" parents towards the scheme.

Naomi Eisenstadt, a social policy expert who was the first director of the Sure Start unit, said: "It takes, what we used to call in Sure Start, ‘intensive outreach'. That's people, health visitors or perhaps those who work in the nursery or the children's centre to understand the demographics of their locality and knock on doors, be there, walk with the parents. With the most disadvantaged families it takes a lot of work, but there are good reasons to do it and it needs resources."

Nick Clegg, who championed the scheme as deputy prime minister, also warned that the scheme for two-year-olds was now in danger of "withering on the vine" and being "squeezed out by this great stampede towards providing 30 hours" for older children.

Fiercely proud of the initiative, Clegg also claimed last week that subsequent attempts by him to expand it were blocked by David Cameron because the editor of the Daily Mail would oppose it.

Recalling a 2015 meeting in the run-up to the coaltion's final budget, when "a few hundred million" had become available from the Treasury, Clegg told the Observer: "I remember vividly Cameron saying ‘Oh we can't possibly do that because Paul Dacre doesn't like it. He thinks two-year-olds should stay at home.'"

Local authorities with the highest proportions of two-year-olds missing out include many that are marked by high levels of deprivation, according to the SMF report. Among them are London boroughs including Tower Hamlets (61%), Newham (57%) and Hillingdon (55%), as well as Nottingham (44%), Slough (43%) and Coventry (41%), according to figures compiled by cross-checking with indices of deprivation.

Powell said: "Ministers' fixation on delivering on their election bungs to better-off parents means they've taken their eye off the ball when it comes to the disadvantaged two-year-old offer. This flagship policy will be ruined if it is not given more priority, particularly in areas where so few toddlers are benefitting from the scheme.

"The evidence is now clear that this quality early education for disadvantaged two-year-olds can be life-changing. Given this, it is scandalous that so little is being done to ensure as many children as possible benefit from it."

The 30-hours scheme, launched last Friday, promises that amount of free childcare for working parents of three- and four-year-olds. However, three quarters of nurseries and childcare providers say that the money offered by the government to fund its election pledge will not cover costs.

The 30-hours provision was born two-and-a-half years ago amid what Clegg described as a "dutch auction" between the Tories and Labour, who had made similar promises.

"I remember David Cameron saying: ‘I want to shoot Labour's fox'," Clegg said. "I'm afraid it is a very depressing saga once again of short-term political gimmickry consuming huge amounts of public resources, not being properly delivered and actually not helping children that are most in need of help."

The minister of state for children and families, Robert Goodwill, said: "Every child should receive the same high-quality care and support, regardless of their background or where they live.

"We are spending over £2.5bn on 15 hours of free childcare for disadvantaged two-year-olds over five years. We know that the take-up of this offer is rising, with 71% of disadvantaged two-year-olds accessing a place - an increase of 13 percentage points since 2015."

"Our independent evaluation of pilot areas where nurseries were delivering the 30-hours offer showed that it did not have any significant adverse effects on the two-year-old offer."

-reprinted from the Guardian

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Entered Date: 
5 Sep 2017
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