03/05/2016

Montessori Chairman’s update February 2016

by Dr Martin Bradley

This is going to be a rather complicated update, dealing with the current legislation, but as it has significant implications for all our members, I hope you will bear with me as I seek to outline some issues.

The Childcare Bill began in the House of Lords where various amendments were proposed. These were largely rejected when it went to the House of Commons where it was considered by a committee and then the whole House, before it went back to the Lords for final approval before going to obtain Royal assent.

The Bill, which is very brief, proposed 30 hours free childcare for 3 and 4 year olds and continues to be the focus of much debate. The issue risks degenerating into the government saying funding is adequate and meets both providers and parents needs, whereas providers increasingly say that it is not adequate to cover their costs. But there are other issues around the policy which also need to be considered. Most fundamentally, the debate is about educational provision versus child care based on parents need to work. Many of us had thought that the advent of the EYFS had gone a long way towards ending false divisions between education and care, but such views remain as underlying the thinking of the current policy. This was evident when the minister, Sam Gyimah, spoke in the House of Commons debate about the 15 additional hours for 3 and 4 year olds in England, describing them as a work incentive for parents, rather than anything designed to support the child, its learning and its development. This was reinforced at the turn of the year when an MSA member was told by her local authority adviser that she could not refuse to meet the wishes of a mother who for work reasons wanted her child to arrive part way through the morning and to leave before afternoon session ended. Clearly this makes a nonsense of the idea of a work cycle and the overall rhythm of a session or a day.

But the parent employment focus has been there for some while. Last year schools were encouraged to admit 2 year olds, with the legislative change coming not from a Bill backed directly by the Department for Education (DfE), but the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act which was led by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Despite Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsteds Chief Inspector, saying that the best place for  two year-olds is in schoolan assertion for which he gave no significant evidencethere is little evidence of state or private schools moving from their existing entry ages, suggesting that the education world does not support the idea, that space in schools is probably too limited, that demand may not be as high as some have suggested, and that funding does not support the earlier entry to school.

I wrote a blog on the Childcare Bill, and so will not repeat the issues I noted thenits on the website if you want to see itbut an interesting briefing paper has since been written by Tim Jarrett for the House of Commons Report Stage analysing comments on the Bills proposals and how they have been influenced by other events. Clearly the policy was thought to be fairly straightforward: providing 15 hours over and above the existing 15 free hours which are a universal entitlement available to all parents where providers join the scheme. The additional hours are to be subject to means testing both in relation to high earners (when one parent earns over £100,00 a year), or when earnings are very low, indicating limited part time work, set at the equivalent income to 16 hours a week at the National Living Wage (or National Minimum Wage for under 25s). As I have commented before, it soon became clear that the scheme was rushed and ill thought out with no real consideration about how providers offering mainly or wholly part time places can move to full time and yet provide places for the same numbers of children full time as for part time. It is also odd that a policy designed to help working parents provides funding for only 38 weeks in the year. This again suggests that whoever thought out the policy was not only unaware of the sessional/full time places point, but also had not fully thought through the full year provision offered by most day nurseries as opposed to term time provision mainly found in sessional settings.

Some of the points Jarrett notes are similar to more general pointsthe scheme was to be funded by cuts to pension tax relief, but now it is seen as an increase in public spending. The original costing for the scheme was to be £350 million a year; now Government estimates say it will cost in excess of £1 billion a year. Obviously with these sorts of figures, any attempt to argue for more funding is likely to fall on deaf ears. Another point is that the Bill has been criticised for being a short skeleton Bill, much of whose detail is to be determined once it is passed into law. The House of Lords amended this by saying that all the detail of DfEs operation of the scheme should be scrutinised by Parliament. This was overturned by the Government during the Commons debate. The House of Lords also sought an independent review of the funding of free childcare, but again this was rejected in the Commons. The skeleton Bill issue is not as obscure as it may initially appear. Whilst the parliamentary principle is that it (i.e. parliament) should be the source of legislation and be able to scrutinise matters in some detail before they are put into effect by DfE, for providers it means that DfE has considerable powers to decide on funding and how local government is to support the scheme. It allows the DfE to decide not just the detail of the scheme, but also the general direction of the policy without prior reference to Parliament. There is a requirement that local authorities publish information about childcare and other services in their area which, as the Minister in the House of Lords, Lord Nash (who we met along with Lord True last year) said during the debate that this will support parents to make informed choices.”  We do not know what information will have to be provided and how far it will be open to being used to pressurise providers into joining the scheme. The Bill stated that the local authority will be required to secure that childcare of such a description as may be specified (by DfE) is made available free of charge for children in their area.” As nearly everywhere most provision is in the private and voluntary sector, this suggests that pressure may be put on providers to sign up to the scheme.

Commenting on the skeleton nature of the Bill, Baroness Jones of Whitchurch, speaking for the Opposition in the Lords noted that We do not have the previous evaluation (of the existing 15 hours universal free childcare), we do not have the funding formula and we do not have the draft regulations. This begs the inevitable question of why the Bill is being rushed through, when a little more time and preparation might have delivered a popular and workable scheme.”  She also said it feels like we are starting with a blank script when we want to debate a fully formed policy. Other comments included Lord Touhig saying that in 20 years service in this House and the other place (i.e. the Commons when he was an MP) I have never seen a Bill so lacking in detail and so dependent on secondary legislation to give its ambitions practical meaning and outcome.

The proposals are to be implemented in pilot areas from September 2016 and rolled out nationally from September 2017. Taking on board Baroness Jones comments, it seems quite likely that the 2017 version of the scheme will look rather different to what is currently proposed or what may be piloted in September 2016. There is to be a consultation (yet another!) in 2016 on how the system will be regulated. But the tone of DfEs comments is focused on parental take-up rather than the provision of places and providers willingness to join the scheme. It is clear, though, that the number of available places will vary in different parts of the country.

The debate around the policy has thrown up clearer evidence about funding variations both across local authorities and in the lack of a level playing field between providers. Evidence from the Lords Select Committee on Affordable Childcare in 2015 (to which MSA provided evidence), from independent consultants, organisations such as PLA, NDNA and MSA, as well as comments from the National Association of Headteachers all share the view that the current level of funding is inadequate and that cross-subsidies are necessary to make the provision viable. These cross-subsidies may be from higher charges for time beyond the 15 hours free care, or from other parts of the organisation, as where nursery free hours are subsidised from funding for older classes in state schools. Several reports have also noted the likely outcome of further underfunding for the additional 15 hours being a reduction in the number of providers willing and/or able to offer the full 30 hours. This does not appear to have been taken on board by the Government which has stated that when it asked for evidence on the possible impact of the proposals, received little quantified evidence of costsnot surprising when DfE did not ask for this, a point noted by PLA which said DfE are blaming the sector for not giving them the data they never asked for.”    The DfE has also  commented that many children will be in reception classes by the age of four, so the change when the 30 hours comes in will be minimal. Again the PVI sector is ignored.

What does all this mean for MSA members. Ironically, for many sessional providers, especially in rented accommodation, the extra funded hours may be an irrelevance. If you can only have the church hall for six or seven sessions a week, with about 21 hours maximum each week, clearly 30 hours cannot apply. I am sure that some authorities will still try to get such settings to join the scheme, if only to boost the number of places they can tell DfE are available in their area. But you will be in a strong position to say that having the free places apply to all sessions will make your setting uneconomic. There will be a need to ensure that the current 15 universal hours is not linked to the additional hoursand if you are told that the universal funding depends on your offering the additional hours, do let us know so that we can challenge this with DfE and publicly. We are aware that Hounslow, for example, has reduced the funding for 2, 3 and 4 year olds places and talks of PVI providers may not engage with delivering the 30 hours. For settings open for 10 sessions a weekabout the 30 hoursthere may be other pressures. By linking the scheme to working parents, an extension of hours of opening may be suggested. Also the issue of attendance for standard periodslike a morning or afternoon sessionmay be challenged further. The governments advisers have already suggested that there are inefficiencies in PVI staffing, where more staff are employed than the EYFS staffing ratios indicate. This is where MSA can help. The idea of a work cycle as well as social factors such as group stability during a session (as opposed to children coming and going throughout the session), emphasise Montessoris educational purpose as opposed to any child care purpose. It gets us back to Maria Montessoris original ideas of not just providing day care but supporting childrens learning and development. We must make sure that we continue to promote our educational role and do not simply accept day care funding. This can best be done by ensuring that we have consistent messages from MSA and its members promoting that educational purpose. To do this we need to keep in touch with your views and experiences, so do let us know how you are being affected by the coming developments.

Best wishes, and good luck.

Dr Martin Bradley

National Chairman

Montessori Schools Association

This article first appeared in the Montessori International magazine Issue 118.  To subscribe email sameena@montessori.org.uk or follow the link  http://shop.montessori.org.uk/index.php?route=product/category&path=37.