The Commons Public Accounts Committee has published its report, The free entitlement to education for three and four year olds.
"High-quality early years education can have lasting benefits for children and results at age five have improved. But the Department needs to get to grips with why there is little improvement at the age of seven and what happens between the ages of five and seven to lessen the effect.
"It is essential that all parents know exactly what their children are entitled to, and that it should be completely free. Too many families are missing out because parents are not being given the information they need. The Department must take steps to ensure that all families receive their entitlement, and that parents are able to compare providers so that they can make informed choices about what is best for their child.
"It is unacceptable for any parent to be charged for what should be a free entitlement. It is also completely unacceptable that some parents cannot access the free education unless they agree to pay ‘top-up’ fees for more hours. The Department must take action to prevent this.**
"Children from disadvantaged families are reported to benefit the greatest from early years education. But it is the children from these families who have the lowest levels of take-up and poorer areas that have the lowest levels of high quality services "
** According to the report:
"In the Department’s own survey of parents, some parents stated that they could not receive the ‘free’ entitlement without buying additional hours. One witness suggested that compulsory top-up fees were commonplace in some nurseries and we have seen other evidence of parents being asked for further payments. Such practices risk excluding poorer families from nurseries. Although the Department told us it has acted in response to approaches by parents we are concerned that it has not been more proactive in understanding the extent of this problem and tackling it. The Department needs to work with local authorities to better understand how common this problem is and to prevent it from happening."
The report also found that:
"Research suggests that high-quality early years education can have a lasting positive impact on educational achievement, but the higher the quality the greater the cost will often be, due to the extra cost of employing qualified staff."
- "Sadly there is still the general perception that anyone can care for children, a perception which we do not and have not ever believed in. The childcare workforce should be highly qualified and professional they are often the first or amongst the first professionals that young children and their families will have experience of. They provide the first experience of formal childcare for children and their families.
- "To ensure that all early years and childcare experience is of the highest quality, providing the best role models, the childcare workforce must be qualified.
- "Requiring all those who work with children to hold a relevant qualification will support this with the general population, but can only be consolidated with a robust career structure which will promote respect from the general public.
- "Stop recruiting childcare workers informally through the playground, require all those working with children to be qualified and registered including nannies. The perception that those who work in domestic premises can fulfil this role without qualification or registration is damaging to the sector workforce and potentially to children too.
- "Make it a requirement that all those working with children and young people are required to have a formal qualification.
- "Raise the earning potential for the early years workforce so to attract a more diverse workforce, including more men.
- "There are not enough men in the workforce, probably because of lack of career structure and salary scale. High academic achievers are often directed to other professions or to teaching because of this."
In a Blog post in September, we highlighted a survey that found that nearly a quarter of 4,359 UK parents who took part said the cost of childcare had put them in debt. Nearly two-thirds said they could not afford not to work and struggled to pay for childcare.
"The early years are crucial to every child's development and it is essential that we have an early years system that meets the needs of children, families and professionals.
"The Government must ask itself how the childcare system can deliver, and recruit and retain a skilled and well-trained workforce, in the face of cuts to local authority services and the axe of closure and redundancy that hangs over children's centres and other early years settings, and the staff who work in them.
"It is vital that childcare is properly funded. There are already many pressures forcing the price of nursery places upwards. Nursery staff are currently vastly under paid. If they become better qualified, they will, rightly, demand higher salaries, driving up the fees paid by parents unless greatly increased subsidies are made available.
"If costs aren't covered, the only area where nursery proprietors can make savings is in staffing costs. This could result in a reduction in the number of staff being employed.
"There must be greater state subsidy of childcare and more free places if we are to address social inequalities, give all children the best possible start in life and enhance the economy by enabling more parents to work full-time or even work at all.
"There has been much debate about how we fund higher education, the benefits or otherwise of a university education and who should pay for it. It's time we had a debate about how we treat and fund the start of our journey through life and learning the early years.
"If primary and secondary education are provided free, why not early years education and childcare? Isn't it a question of priorities?"
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