With David Cameron pledging to accelerate his election promise to double the hours of free childcare offered to parents, several bodies have raised worries about the governmentís ability to make up the impending funding shortfall.
In an effort to outdo Labourís childcare promises, Cameron introduced proposals aiming to increase the number of hours of free childcare per week from 15 to 30, starting as early as September 2016.
However, research from the Pre-School Learning Alliance (PSLA) brings up several worries regarding the funding of this increase, given that, as they claim, the current system of childcare already suffers from issues of underfunding. And so while they are more than happy to agree in principle with the idea of increasing free childcare, the reality of the situation brings about more worry than optimism.
Chief executive of the PSLA Neil Leitch has said on the subject: ìThe so-called free childcare scheme is nothing of the sort. For years now, the initiative has been subsidised by providers because of a lack of adequate government fundingî
Figures brought up by research from the PSLA that once the extension to free childcare hours has been implemented, the cost to private providers will be around £1.95 billion, £250 million more than the £1.7 billion covered by government funding. Not only this but the £350 million of extra funding proposed by the Conservatives during their campaign, is rather significantly far off the £1.5 billion that research suggest the new drive will cost if every child eligible actually took up the extra 15 hours a week.
ìWhile we of course welcome the driver to improve the availability of childcare in this countryî said Neil Leitch, ìthese figures clearly show that the governmentís plan to extend funded childcare hours simply cannot work without a substantial increase in sector funding.î
Acting Labour leader Harriet Harman has also criticised the discrepancy between Cameronís plans and the harsh realities, claiming that ìthe rhetoric might be promising, but the reality is that childrenís centres have closed and the cost of childcare has soaredî citing the fact that the cost (of childcare) for the average family has actually gone up by £1,500 a year since 2010.
Conservative employment minister Priti Patel however, has fought back against the barrage of concerns, claiming that the governments focus on the ìqualityî of care has paid off, with ì80% of providers now judged to be good or outstanding compared to less than 70% back in 2010.î
On the subject of funding discrepancies, she added ìwhat weíre announcing with the increase from 15 to 30 hours, is that Iíll be chairing a government-led task force on the delivery of this and we will be working with providers on the point about funding, to review the overall funding model so that we can bring an uplift to the hourly rate for childcare entitlement which strikes the right balance.î
So it seems that there is something of a shift in the right direction, towards the improvement of welfare and childcare for those worse off financially, allowing parents more time to find work while their children are taken care of. However, it is hard to distinguish between benevolence and politics, with potentially empty statements regarding future ìreviewsî and ìtask-forcesî being potentially little more than smoke and mirrors disguising the fact that promises were made that may not actually be viable to keep. We will have to wait and see in the coming years whether cynicism or optimism will in out, but at the very least we can rest assured that now that these worries about underfunding have been voiced, something will be done to address them.