The Department for Education (DfE) has published the long-awaited independent evaluation of the early implementation of 30 hours 'free' childcare in England. Carried out by researchers from Frontier Economics, the University of East London and NatCen Social Research, the evaluation is available to read in full and in brief.
From September 2016, eight local authorities in England began to deliver 30 hours 'free' childcare to around 5,000 children. In one local authority (York), this involved a universal offer to all eligible children; in the remaining seven authorities, between 400 and 600 children were offered extended 30-hour places.
The evaluation is structured around ten questions:
1. Were providers willing to offer the extended hours?
Yes – the study found that a high proportion of providers were ‘willing and able’ to offer 30 hours. The majority of places (57 per cent) were delivered by private day nurseries, 14 per cent were delivered by voluntary providers, and 13 per cent were delivered by nursery classes in maintained schools. Only seven per cent were delivered by childminders, and even fewer were delivered by independent schools, nursery schools and children centres.
The authors of the study assert that the low level of childminders involved in the pilots was primarily due to lack of parental demand for their involvement.
In order to be a success, the national rollout must recognise that different setting types face different delivery challenges; that local business support is crucial; and that payment processes must be efficient and reliable.
2. Were providers able to offer sufficient hours and were there any adverse impacts on other provision?
There were sufficient places to meet demand and no evidence of any adverse effects on other early years entitlements (including two-year-old provision) or paid provision. However, early implementation was a very limited test of sufficiency due to the limited number of places in seven of the eight participating authorities, and the fact that it was rolled out in the autumn when capacity is at its highest. The study therefore recommends that a review of sufficiency is undertaken again in April 2018 when demand will be peaking for the summer term. If a substantial expansion in capacity is found to be needed, the DfE should look at how this can be achieved using existing building spaces, new capital funding and continued support for the workforce through the Early Years Workforce Strategy.
3. Did providers work in partnerships?
Only 20 per cent of 30 hour places in the pilots were delivered in partnership. Where partnerships were successful, this was in large part due to effective support from the local authority. Some of the key challenges to partnership working included tensions between different providers and a strong parental preference for using a single provider. Two-thirds of parents said they thought it was better for a child to have just one formal provider.
4. How flexible and 'free' were the extended hours?
Most providers were already offering full-day provision throughout the year, but a small number of providers (11 per cent) increased their opening times as a result of the pilots. There was also evidence of providers (particularly private day nurseries) limiting parental choice, for example by offering the free entitlement hours for only part of the day or during less busy sessions.
Although one in seven providers (14 per cent) reported introducing increased additional charges for parents because of the extended hours, a majority of parents (55 per cent) reported paying more. There was evidence of parental confusion around charges, but ‘their gratitude for their lower childcare bill…seemed to outweigh their frustrations’.
Local authorities reported difficulties in interfering with providers’ business decisions; with a number of ‘grey areas’ in the guidance; and a lack of tools to enforce the rules. The study therefore recommends that the guidance be improved and that DfE provide more support in situations where local authorities are challenged by providers or parents.
5. What was the financial impact for providers?
Providers reported mixed financial impact from delivering the extended hours, with some reporting higher costs (30%) and lower profits (40%). Private providers and childminders were more likely o report an impact on costs, compared to voluntary and maintained settings. The study concludes whilst delivering the extended hours will be financially sustainable for ‘some providers’, it will not be for others. It recommends that future reviews of funding rates need to be more explicit about the level of service that they are expected to support in terms of quality and flexibility, and they need to consider the drivers of ongoing changes in delivery costs.
6. Did parents take up places?
A high number of eligible parents took up places, and they tended to be more highly educated and have higher incomes than other families. The study found that once they were aware of the offer, parents were quick to take up the extended hours and approach providers for a place. The study recommends that active marketing through childcare providers and local authorities is particularly helpful in increasing parental take-up.
The authors also counsel the Government to consider allowing immediate access to the extended hours for parents who enter work (rather than requiring them to wait a term), or allowing eligibility to continue until he child starts school, even if the parent leaves work (scrapping the grace period).
7. How did the use of childcare change?
While most families took up the full 15 additional hours, a sizeable minority (42 per cent) took up fewer than 15 hours. Around eight per cent of parents started using formal childcare for the first time as a result of the extended hours, whilst nearly half (49 per cent) increased their hours of formal childcare. Fifteen per cent of parents changed their existing formal childcare arrangements as a result of the extended hours (nine per cent changed provider and 6 per cent began to use an additional provider). Forty-two per cent of parents combined the extended entitlement with informal childcare.
Parents reported that longer hours in formal childcare had had a positive impact on their child, with 87 per cent saying the they thought they had improved school readiness.
8. How did parental work change?
Only a small number of parents reported entering work as a result of the extended hours (one per cent of mothers and less than one per cent of fathers). However nearly a quarter of mothers (23 per cent) and nine per cent of fathers reported increasing their work hours. Evidence from the study suggests that the extended hours may encourage both parents to work longer hours, though mothers are still more likely remain working part time. There is also evidence that the extended hours may support mothers to remain in work.
9. What other effects were there on families?
A majority of parents (78 per cent) reported greater flexibility in their work choices as a result of the extended hours. Less reliance on informal care was reported to reduce stress and burden on grandparents in particular. A majority of parents (58 per cent) reporting having slightly more money to spend, with over a quarter (26 per cent) reported having much more, particularly more affluent parents who tend to spend more money on childcare.
10. What challenged and what supported implementation?
Key implementation challenges were caused by the name of the policy (’30 hours free childcare’ is misleading for multiple reasons); the unrealistic timescale; negative publicity about the scheme from the national media; a lack of robust data on the number of eligible families and where they live; and a failure to appoint the national business support organisation in the first few months of early implementation. In order for the national rollout to be a success, the study’s authors recommend that DfE provides sufficient and effective support for local authorities. They also highlight the need for DfE to communicate simple, positive messages to promote the policy to providers and parents.
The study concludes with some caveats about how far lessons can be drawn from early implementation for the national rollout, given its small scale. However, it concludes that ‘evidence from early implementation suggests that there is no specific reason to believe that 30 hours 'free' childcare will not be a success.’
Responding to the independent evaluation of the 30 hour pilots, PACEY’s Director of Partnerships, Sue McVay commented:
“Whilst it is good news that a wide range of families accessing 30 hours 'free' childcare in the eight pilot areas reported a number of benefits, the independent evaluation makes it crystal clear that the scheme is not working to everyone’s advantage. It is extremely worrying that 40 per cent of providers engaged in the pilots reported a decrease in profits, despite many increasing their occupancy rates. This is no doubt due to insufficient funding rates which do not take into account providers’ actual costs, which are rising. Funding for the early years entitlements needs to be put on a sustainable footing as a matter of urgency or quality and sufficiency will suffer.
“PACEY was also deeply concerned to learn that only seven per cent of funded places in the pilots were taken up with childminders, and that the key barrier was limited parental demand for their involvement. Our own research has also found that childminders are being consistently overlooked by parents and local authorities for funded places, and that this is a factor behind the drop of nearly a quarter in the number of registered childminders since 2012. The national rollout of 30 hours could push childminders further out of the market.
“Childminding must be actively championed by national and local government and the health service to parents, so they understand that childminders are more than glorified babysitters; they are providing some of the highest quality care and early education for children and their families, demonstrated so vividly by last week’s SEED study. Like other providers, childminders also need sustainable funding and business support. If action is not taken, we are going to see more and more childminders leaving the sector, which will have a devastating impact on parental choice and the quality of provision in England.”