02/12/2015

MSA Chairman’s Update December 2015

There continue to be interesting developments for the early years this term. Three in particular have been the subject of discussion with members of the National Council.

Firstly, Ofsted reports this term are much briefer and less informative. Several MSA members have commented that they are not very informative for parents, mainly due it appears to inspectors time in settings being severely limited. By contrast, MEAB reports are being seen as much more informative for parentsand much more valuable for the setting. So the benefits of being accredited are even more apparent!

Part of the Ofsted issue, in my view, is the Chief Inspectors wish to have a common inspection framework whereby all types of schools and associated provision from birth to further education have the same report structure, with limited variations. The special essence of the early years was something we expressed concerns about during the pilot programme for the current inspections.

Secondly, there has been a lot of publicity for two year old funding.   Tracking down the legal basis for this has been interesting, but DfE eventually gave us the link, after Ofsted had not been able to do so. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has produced some fact sheets on the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act: Childcare and Schools. This is one of several examples of government departments other than the Department for Education being the source of legislation affecting our work. Basically this Act did three things. Firstly, it supported the introduction of the Early Years Pupil Premium for disadvantaged three and four year olds from April 2015this only applies to areas of identified social/ financial need, with local authorities being given the power to identify children who would be eligible. As such it affects only a minority of schools and settings.

The second change is that the Act extended the exemption from Ofsted registration which schools already have for taking children aged three and above, down to include two year oldsthat is, schools need not have a separate registration for their two year old provision and, in effect they can start children from age two. Take up of this offer in the maintained school sector is not yet clear and funding costs seem likely to reduce schools enthusiasm if they have to subsidise the money received for under-fives from their primary school budgets. It is also not yet clear how this will affect independent schools and settings which do not currently admit two year olds or whose provision for two year olds is separately registered. We are asking DfE to confirm that any change of age range is what is technically called a material change triggering a short visit from an Ofsted inspector to confirm that the school or setting can manage to take two year olds. My view is that it will legally require such a visit, but we all know how stretched Ofsted is with its current work, let alone taking on more. Separate registration of provision for under twos remains a legal requirement.

The third change allows childminders to operate on non-domestic premises for up to half their time using their childminder registration. The example given is where a childminder could run a small after school club working on school premises, but these would still need to be registered with Ofsted. What is described as a bureaucracy busting initiative is that where several such sites are to be used, only one block application for permission need be madenot much help to individual childminders.

The other interesting (!) piece of legislation currently going through Parliament is the Childcare Bill which refers to the government policy to introduce 30 hours free childcare.   This began in the House of Lords where it appears that the government thought it would be fairly uncontroversial. However a number of peers, including Lord True whose wife runs a Montessori nursery, expressed concerns about the proposals. They were able to amend the Bill whilst it was in the House of Lords. It is due to receive its second reading in the House of Commons on November 25th. The Lords amendment has the effect of delaying the introduction of childcare à ¢Ã¢ €š ¬ ¦ available free of charge for qualifying children of working parents for à ¢Ã¢ €š ¬ ¦ 30 hours in each of 38 weeks in any year.   Instead the DfE must establish an independent review of the free childcare entitlement funding system, including a large-scale analysis of the cost of delivering funded places; and (must) put in place a comprehensive and sustainable funding solution which take into account the complete findings of the reviewà ¢Ã¢ €š ¬ ¦ and which addresses the funding of existing childcare and the additional requirements on childcare providers arising from this Act.

It looks as though the Bill will get through the Commons by Christmas, so any review will need to be set up in the New Year. By the time it has taken evidence and reported, it is likely to be well after Easter. In turn this means that it is unlikely that any 30 hours provision will not come into effect until April 2017 at the earliest. I understand that some parents are seeking to book places on the understanding that the 30 hour funding will come into effect this autumn. The government now says that the start date has now been put off until early 2017.

The review is not only to look at the proposed 30 hours, but also the EY pupil premium and existing three and four year old funding. This is a major result for the EY sector, and one which supports the stance we took when MSA and St Nicholas representatives along with Lord True met with Lord Nash, the Minister responsible for the Act, back in September. It is important not to get too carried away with this. There are many possibilities for changes to the Bill as it stands. However it does provide MSA and Montessori St Nicholas with the opportunity to be pro-active in seeking to provide DfE with information to inform the review. Our intention is to get in quickly before the review is set up to register our interest and our ability to provide the sort of detailed evidence which previous reviews have failed to obtain.

Recent years have seen several attempts by Parliament and others to get an accurate picture of the actual costs of providing places. Everyone agrees current 3 and 4 year old funding is inadequate, but if we are to get a more accurate view, we need better statistics. Committees of both the Houses of Commons and Lords have failed to gather accurate information and the Audit Commission has also failed. The Commons Public Accounts Committee also noted the lack of detailed figures, but prised MSA for providing some useful information. Now I think we can try to go further and we will seek your help in getting a more positive outcome.

On 25 November the Bill was debated in the House of Commons and it now goes to a Committee which will have its first meeting on 8 December. It is expected to go back to the full House by 15 December, but before then you can send in your comments to the Committee at scrutiny@parliament.uk. The two proposals highlighted by the Committee are

and extended entitlement to an additional 15 hours of free childcare for 38 weeks of the year for a qualifying child of a working parent; and

A duty on local authorities to publish information about childcare and related matters.

Basically there are three aspects which lack statistics:

Actual costs of places for two year olds and, separately, for three and four year olds.

Numbers of places: the present system is largely based on part time provision. We need to get an idea of how many schools and preschools currently operate for 30 hours and what proportion of their children come for 30 hours. To state the obvious, if you can only use the church hall for six or seven three hour sessions a week, you cannot offer 30 hours. No-one knows accurately how much provision is affected by this, but I suspect that it is a high proportion of the private, voluntary and independent sectorand we are the largest sector in early years. The proposals also beg the question about what is intended to happen for the 14 weeks a year of non-funded provision. It seems perverse to have full time funded day care to support working parents only during school terms.

The impact of settings going to full day care. This is probably best illustrated in the maintained school sector where most nursery classes offer either five morning or five afternoon sessions. But if you have, say, two groups of 26 children, one for the mornings and one for afternoons, to go to 26 full time places cuts the number of children able to use the provision by half. This is obvious to people working in early years, but was apparently not obvious to the politicians from all parties who proposed extending the number of free hours. The review needs to establish how many extra places would be needed to provide 30 hours care for the current children using part time provision.

In his autumn budget statement on 25 November George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, made some significant changes to the previous proposals. The current voucher system was already due to be replaced in 2017 by the tax-free childcare scheme. Before couples earning up to £150,000 each would have been able to join the new scheme, but he cut the limit to £100,000, although higher earners could still get the vouchers buy registering now. If new users do not register, they will not qualify even if only one of them earns under £100,000. The vouchers are to be accessed through employers and self-employed people are not eligible. The web link for advice is gov.uk/help-with-child-care-costs/overview where information on tax credits can also be found.

No-one know with any degree of accuracy how many parents actually want the 30 hoursand how far people realise that it will be for a maximum of 38 weeks a year. Quite what will happen during the other 14 weeks of the year when the child will still presumably need care for several weeks, has not been a major part of the debate. My daughter in law recently went back to work when her daughter was one year old. The debate amongst her friends from NCT classes has not only been how to balance the financial benefits of working with the costs of child care, but also how much of the week they want to work and how much choice they may have in that decision. Demand for semi-universal funded places has been an assumption which does not appear to have much clear support from research evidence. We need to be very careful that funding does not cut part time places only to find that full time places are not taken upleading to even more financial problems for providers.

We will watch this space!

Best wishes,

Dr Martin Bradley

National Chairman

Montessori Schools Association