Well I’m not sure quite who, how or what happened but it seems as a sector we have made one step forward and been knocked several steps back. The LA Statutory Guidance for Early Education and Childcare was released alongside the Model Agreement: Early years provision free of charge and free childcare at the end of last week. Notice THAT word there? The four letter word I refuse to use in my literature – ‘it’s not free for me’ as those of you who know me is one of my common phrases. It didn’t bode well for the anticipated progress we were all hoping for…
So you can imagine my disappointment when I started to read through the statutory guidance and became increasingly aware that the language had changed, where had our funded places gone? They had, possibly like many of our aspirations for some government support with this, disappeared! The early years provision will be, in case we need any clarification, not only ‘free of charge’ but also ‘free entitlement’, ‘free place’ or for good measure they threw in ‘free hours’ as well (p6). At a rough count, and not including Free School Meal mentions there are 120 insertions of the word free (from funded in most cases but some just thrown in gratuitously) in the now 46 page document (draft version being 29 pages). I guess we have Teresa May, Justine Greening and Caroline Dineage to thank for this – so much for female solidarity! But as I am no longer ever surprised at the inexplicable actions of some people, why should I expect the government to be any different!
Aside from the mis-numbered references to others pages and the missing entry for ‘Child arrangement orders’ on p46 there are many additions to this document, some more important than others. A1.13 places the legal duty on LA’s to ensure those eligible for the extended entitlement have a place no later than the next term (p10), so they’ll be after us to provide these 30 hr places quickly. The Grace period has at least been given some logic – essentially always finishing at the end of a term (subject to Easter dates) which gives us some stability at least. The use of the word ‘high’ to replace good or where it did not previously exist in front of quality is a common theme throughout as well.
But what of those main conditions – the ones we have relied on to charge additional services and circumnavigate the ‘rules’? Well there are certainly more conditions in there (A1.20-1.27), some might say this gives better clarification, but other than ensuring we have clear and transparent admissions policies and invoices, the essence of the requirements remain very similar to what we have seen before. Perhaps not as flexible as we would like but I am confident that the system I use for my own settings and have been delivering to others in my Funding the Gap Workshop for over a year now will pass muster with this document, providing it is followed in its entirety. Indeed the new document even advocates one of the things I have been doing for many years – my own parental declaration form (A2.2). Some LA rules have gone as well – no minimum session length, no requirement for LA’s to deliver 3 x 5hr sessions or 5 x 3hr sessions and it seems no maximum number of providers in a week, which is a bit of a worrying thought for an individual child. Although they do say, in more than one place, that providers need to be offering continuity for children and not create artificial breaks during the day, such as lunch breaks. LA’s must also make us aware that we can choose not to deliver any free places.
Some new requirements for LA’s to support their Maintained Nursery Schools, suggesting that MNS’s could deliver quality improvement strategies, which seems to me to be a way of diverting funds towards them once their protection is removed, or even before that time. But there does seem to be mixed messages on quality and whilst the document confirms LA’s should refer to Ofsted as the benchmark for quality (A3.8), in A1.22 they are told they should ensure providers are consistent so children receive the same quality and access to provision regardless of their opting to pay for anything. I’m not quite sure how they will monitor or measure that, if they have no responsibility for the quality itself!
We are being encouraged more than ever before to look at partnership working, now on the basis to ‘support children’s learning and well-being’ (A4.37) if they change provider. LA’s are told they should not penalise providers for short-term absences of children by removing funds. However, the ability to fine us is outlined in the Model Agreement (2.43) but cannot be ‘disproportionate’ to the inconvenience it caused. I think for LA’s to meet their statutory requirements of place sufficiency I would be encouraging them to talk directly to their providers to ensure a range of sessions is available, rather than trying to dictate to them from afar, as they have done previously.
So aside from adding in a policy or two and ensuring everything is clear and understandable I think we’re good to go from September 2017 and for the 30 hours. I know many people still have concerns and if you are still not sure about how you are going to manage then find out more about our Workshop by completing an MBK Training Expression of Interest.