MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 22-Jan-14 10:53:34

Free childcare for two year-olds: why the rollout should be delayed

According to new research funded by the Sutton Trust and carried out by the University of Oxford, the government should delay expanding free nursery provision for two year-olds until it can guarantee that they all have access to good quality places.

In this guest post, lead researcher Sandra Mathers argues that the standard of childcare is not yet good enough, and says more work must be done to ensure that the new places support children's development effectively.

Read her post - and let us know what you think on the thread below.

Sandra Mathers

Lead Researcher

Posted on: Wed 22-Jan-14 10:53:34

(44 comments )

Lead photo

Free early years childcare is hugely beneficial to children from low economic backgrounds - but only if it is of a high enough quality

Most parents would love a free childcare place for their two year-old.

For some, this is already possible. For children growing up in the most disadvantaged families, the government offers a free early education place of 15 hours a week, either at a nursery or with a childminder.

The two year-old programme is based on sound research showing that starting childcare before three can give children growing up in difficult circumstances an extra boost. Poor children are already 19 months behind their more affluent peers by age five, and this gap continues and often widens as children move through school.

The government is now planning to expand the free offer to 40% of all two year-olds. From September 2014, many low income working families will be eligible, as will two year-olds with special educational needs and disabilities.

This is a good thing, right?

Then why on earth are we recommending that the government delays expanding the programme?

We know that early education and care can help these children overcome the odds, and narrow the achievement gap. Some of the best evidence comes from the evaluation of the pilot programme, which offered free places to around 13,500 low income two year-olds before the programme was rolled out nationally. The results showed benefits for the children who attended, with a boost to their language skills equivalent to a child at risk of entering the bottom third improving to almost typical development for their age.

But as always, the devil is in the detail. The evaluation of the pilot programme showed that the benefits were only seen for children who attended a good quality place. For children who experienced low quality, the free place did nothing to improve their language and learning. So, if the two year-old programme is to be successful in narrowing the gap between disadvantaged children and their better off peers, the quality of the care is critical.

Some would have to wait for their free place, but we believe a delay is needed to make sure that all places are of a good enough standard to support children's development.


We have been exploring what quality should look like for children under three, and the implications of this for the two year-old programme. Our findings on ‘what children need’ will hold few surprises for parents: young children need close and affectionate relationships with adults they know and trust, support to develop their language skills, opportunities to be active and to develop physically, and the freedom to learn through play rather than through formal teaching.

But how exactly do we achieve this quality? And is current childcare provision up to scratch?

Good quality staffing is essential. Early years workers need to be well qualified so that they understand how young children develop, and how they can best support that development. They also need to be paid a decent wage. Pay for early years practitioners also tends to be low: average pay for workers in nurseries and preschools is £13,330 per year, compared with £19,150 for an equivalent role in Germany.

Without decent pay, nursery managers can struggle to recruit well qualified staff and staff turnover is often high. This has serious consequences for young children, for whom constant changes in caregivers can be very disruptive. Worryingly, our study suggests that qualifications and pay are not yet as they should be to ensure quality. For example, only 6 out of 10 childminders have a childcare qualification equivalent to A levels.

The result is that in 2012, only 74% of early years providers nationally were graded as good or outstanding, with 26% graded as satisfactory (now known as ‘requiring improvement’) or inadequate.

This is why we have recommended the government delay the expansion of the two year-old programme, to fund improvements to training and pay for the early years workforce. Relieving the pressure to expand would also allow the quality criteria for allowing providers to take part in the programme to be tightened. At the moment, providers graded as ‘satisfactory’ or ‘requiring improvement’ can offer places in areas where there is a shortage, with obvious consequences for quality. A delay would make it possible to allow only providers graded as ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted to offer places.

One option might be for the government to expand to cover 30% of two year-olds in 2014, and then move to 40% by 2015 or 2016. This would mean some families having to wait for their free place, but we believe a delay is needed to make sure that all places are of a good enough standard to support children’s development. The programme has huge potential to help the most disadvantaged children succeed. But if is it expanded too fast we risk it not succeeding for any of the children it is intended to help.

*MNHQ edit: Sandra has expanded on the points she makes about Ofsted ratings, further down the thread.

By Sandra Mathers

Twitter: @suttontrust

morethanpotatoprints Wed 22-Jan-14 11:43:43

So basically, they are saying that childcare isn't good enough and they can't find well qualified staff.
Now I really support this policy for free nursery places for vulnerable children, but many parents are paying for the same childcare, how must they feel to read these criticisms?
Good enough for paying parents, but not good enough as a free service, heard it all now.

elliejjtiny Wed 22-Jan-14 11:45:17

I think an improvement in training and pay for staff working in early years can only be a good thing. However it's been tried before and didn't work. When labour were in power the early years professional status was introduced which is a post graduate course. So many nursery nurses did degrees and then the EYPS. But their pay didn't improve and now we have graduates working in their field for barely above NMW. Then the tories came into power and they wanted lower ratios and cheaper childcare. We need to encourage early years workers to aim higher and give them the pay that they deserve. People can't afford to live on the wages they pay nursery nurses these days.

Lottapianos Wed 22-Jan-14 12:20:23

Completely agree with the points about raising pay levels for nursery workers, their pay rates are disgraceful.

I disagree with this initiative from the government. I work in early years myself and I would much prefer to see money poured into support for parents through Children's Centres, rather than childcare. Every parent needs support at some point so every parent would benefit. There is an alarming lack of knowledge among many parents about fundamental issues like how to play with a child, how to support their language development, how to implement routines, how to manage tantrums and other behaviour issues and just general parenting skills. I am a big fan of nurseries and they certainly do have an impact on outcomes for children, but I feel that much more should be expected from parents, and free high-quality support should be provided in order for them to achieve it. Nursery staff will come and go but the parent-child relationship is forever and seems to be totally ignored by this government.

dashoflime Wed 22-Jan-14 12:37:50

Hmm, its a worrying article.
If the childcare places available aren't good enough to give disadvantaged two years olds the boost they need- then the policy won't be successful in its own terms.
The parents would still benefit from the childcare I suppose. Plus she doesn't suggest that two years olds are actively harmed by the lower quality places- just that they don't help close the achievement gap in the same way high quality places would.
In Scotland the SNP have also promised extended free childcare and while, I'm very much in favour of the policy for the boost it will do the economy (in terms of new childcare jobs created as well as reduced barriers to women going to work), I do also wonder about the quality of the places available.
Full disclosure- I use a child minder for DS (18mths). I choose this form of childcare because of the stability of a single attachment figure.

CouthyMow Wed 22-Jan-14 13:19:19

Actually, 2yo's with SEN can already access this Funding - my DS3's Preschool place is funded in this way, and has been since September when he was 2y8mo. His 1-2-1 is funded by inclusion funding, separately.

As an early years practitioner (over the last twenty years) this is all very interesting ...
Whilst I respect the emphasis of the Sutton Trust, and of this research, regarding the importance of quality early years provision, I do not necessarily agree with their main recommendation.

That's because, as dashoflime points out it hasn't been shown that the 15 hours of provision even at a satisfactory nursery is detrimental to a child compared to spending that time in the home environment, merely that it may not be fully effective in narrowing those attainment gaps. Furthermore much provision will be in good or outstanding nurseries which can support the child's development even more effectively.

Meanwhile that early years provision (of 15 hours per week) may be very helpful to the mother or parent in helping them structure their week, in having some time with a younger sibling, in beginning to explore possibilities for future work or training, in supporting existing employment, in supporting family relationships, in improving mental and physical health in the mother.

So, we have to remember that early years provision is both very importantly there to support the learning and development of the child, and at the same time is also a child care resource for the parent.

When both aspects are looked at in balance I see no reason not to roll out this programme of provision for 2 year olds as originally intended.
IMHO the quality of the provision offered can still be improved through training and support and inspection of providers as all other educational and nursery provision is currently.

BTW I was working with 2 year olds in pre-schools taking part in this pilot.
Two were graded "outstanding" and one was "good"
It is good to feel we were making a difference in the lives of both children and parents.
I think most 2 year olds will benefit from 15 hours per week (often equates to either morning or afternoon sessions) in a pre-school or nursery setting with their peers.

(Also of course very interesting to see what someone in Germany might be paid for the important and rewarding work that I do !)

CouthyMow Wed 22-Jan-14 13:24:30

It H's made the world of difference to DS3's speech - he has multiple issues, and without FT 1-2-1, would not be able to access ANY setting, good or otherwise. I don't even know or card what his preschool's Ofsted rating is - they are doing a stellar job with my DS3, and were the one of only 3 preschools in my entire, large town that would accept him without me forcing them to.

The Ofsted rating never tells you if the preschool is the right one for YOUR child.

CouthyMow Wed 22-Jan-14 13:26:01

I DO fully agree that Childcare should command far higher wages - they are looking after the person most precious to us, and should be appropriately valued for doing well at that.

I'm pleased to hear about your DS3's progress CouthyMow - I think it's particularly rewarding to support a child's developing language acquisition and pre-schools can play a key role in this.

CouthyMow Wed 22-Jan-14 13:40:39

According to the last Ofsted report , which I have just looked at, they score 2's and 3's across the board.

And do you know what? I couldn't care less!

They do a wonderful job of integrating DS3 into every activity, have got him to play with playdoh when 3 months ago he recoiled from the texture, they have encouraged him to develop pretend okay skills that were delayed as a result of his development delay , they incorporate his Physio into games that all the children join into, they have encouraged his speech as he has speech delay, they have taught him to use scissors despite his physical issues, they manage his multiple, severe contact anaphylactic food allergies, at both snack time and now through Lunch Club, without ostracising him or having him sit on a separate table, so he is learning about eating in a group, they are also helping to teach him about food safety wrt his allergies...

I could probably list 100 more reasons why their not-so-good Ofsted rating doesn't bother me in the slightest - because it is totally at odds with my experience as a Parent.

Admittedly, the available report online is not a recent one, as they were only inspected last week, but if I had looked at the Ofsted report and refused to send him there based on that , he would be missing out on all the benefits he is receiving.

DS3 is my fourth DC to go through preschool, and I have had experience of 6 different preschools over 4 DC's - and despite this one having by far the worst Ofsted report, it cares about the children the most...

Make of that what you will, but IMO Ofsted reports are a box-ticking exercise that often bears no relation to the way a school or preschool looks after your child and helps them.

EldonAve Wed 22-Jan-14 14:47:37

I don't think it should be delayed

DD's old nursery took DCs from a year upwards, they had lots of flour space for DCs to crawl about, play individually, cosy corners to nap in or take a book. Her 2 and 9 months plus pre school didn't.

There really was only room to do an activity at a table or an easel. The carpeted area is very small. Ok for sitting neatly reading a story, but 2yo don't sit neatly, they want to sprawl and push toy cars about the floor and sort and arrange toys or simply roll about and be 2.

My fidgety, climb everything DD1 got up to all kinds of antics in that pre school, because even at three she still wanted to explore not sit still.

I worry very much that many pre schools are just that, pre schools, they are not set up for toddlers.

Toddlers need space to explore and an adult they feel safe with to come back too. Many preschools have neither the space or the staff numbers to cope.

CouthyMow Wed 22-Jan-14 17:31:03

I think it helps at DS3's preschool that they are most definitely set up for toddlers, probably because half of the DC's there go to school Nursery in the September after they are 3y6mo, so the average age range at the preschool is swayed towards 2yo's and younger 3yo's. They nappy change, have potties, and toilets. DS3 is 3yo on Friday, and is by no means the youngest DC there, nor the oldest. He is around in the middle of the age range IYSWIM.

It may have been different if I was in an area with no School Nurseries, as the age range would have been far greater at a preschool, and he may not have fitted in so well.

BackforGood Wed 22-Jan-14 19:04:48

This, that Juggling said

Meanwhile that early years provision (of 15 hours per week) may be very helpful to the mother or parent in helping them structure their week, in having some time with a younger sibling, in beginning to explore possibilities for future work or training, in supporting existing employment, in supporting family relationships, in improving mental and physical health in the mother

Also, your toes would curl when you know what living conditions some children endure. Give me a Nursery that "requires improvement" over some of those living conditions any day of the week.
Also, until people really see OFSTED grades reflecting the quality of care and quality of educational provision in a school or setting, rather than following whatever narrow political agenda is in fashion at the time, then it's not something that can be reason to not offer this programme to so many families in need.

I have no choice but to send DS to nursery I can't afford not to work. We at lucky we chose a nursery that he loves and the staff are fab. So actually that funded place would mean a lot to me. Just because a place is offered doesn't mean people have to take it up but for those of us who don't have the luxury of being a stay at home parent it would help enormously.

Strawberrypenguin (DD2 would love your NN) you are absolutely right that manny many people could do with child care from 2 or before.

However, this is a very scattered rural area, there is very limit nursery provision for small DCs.

The preschools connected to village primaries are, as described above small and designed for older DCs.

The other provision tends to be play groups in church halls. I can't see single big echoey halls full of DCs 2-rising 5 with no permanent cosy corners, carpets and limit storage for the sort of plastic toddler slides and squishy shapes toddlers would love being a very good setting for DCs just 2.

Compared with a dedicated room at a nursery or my child minder DFs cosy toddler toy filled dinning room, they really don't seem a good fit.

DollyHouse Thu 23-Jan-14 00:18:49

Doesn't this whole post kind of rely a bit too much on OFSTED actually reflecting the standard of care in the settings?

It's not as if staff are on their best behaviour during inspections or anything... Oh. Wait.

CouthyMow Thu 23-Jan-14 02:30:21

DS3's Preschool IS in a church hall. They have a permanent outside secure garden, with a wooden Wendy house , a HUGE sandpit, bikes, trikes and ride on toys, they do water play outside and in, they access it every session, cold or wet - they have wellies and coats and hats in Winter, sun hats and sun cream in summer.

At least once a week they have the plastic slide out in the hall, another day they have the wooden toddler sized climbing frame in the hall. They have a 'home corner' set up each day, with different things each day - doll stuff one day, doctors another, tools, shop, dressing up...(my DS3's current favourite outfit is a fetching pale blue Cinderella dress, which sets off his ginger mane wonderfully in the photo in his learning record).

They have a tray filled with either sand or water each day, with different toys in each day.

They have a craft table set up each day, with either playdoh or cutting and sticking activities. They have an easel set up for painting each day. They have a small world corner set up with different toys each day - rockets one day, a castle another, doll house, animals...

They have a tent in the hall, which is used as a 'cosy corner'.

They have a separate 'mini room' where they go for register at the start of preschool, and story and song time at the end of the session.

If THAT is what Ofsted class as a good to satisfactory rating under the OLD system, then Ofsted are frankly talking bollocks. It's all about paper filling and box ticking to get an Outstanding rating.

To me, this preschool IS outstanding. And I told the Ofsted inspector so!!

CouthyMow Thu 23-Jan-14 02:31:52

They have most of the floor covered with huge carpeted play mats.

CouthyMow Thu 23-Jan-14 02:45:39

I've been able to observe without observing, in the church entrance where you can see into the preschool hall, for 2 weeks until DS3's extra insurance came through. (Had to be on the premises, but could be outside the hall). There's no way they can keep up Ofsted levels of whatever for 2 full weeks, for a full morning session unless that IS their standard level of care.

Oh - they also use the Sunday school room to teach the older DC's phonics in a small group. Despite DS3's speech delay, he can now spell around 6 3-letter words with phonics...

They also run a Lunch Club, and they let you pay for afternoon sessions after your funding covers the morning session, so that you can use it as Childcare if you work school hours.

I can't fault the preschool in their level of care for my DS3, who started there at 2y9mo. He's just about to turn 3yo on Friday - and I have decided that he will be staying here rather than going to School Nursery in September, as he is doing so well here.

He can't talk in more than 3-4 word sentences due to his speech delay - but 3 months ago, given that the most SALT can offer here is 1 session every 3 months on the NHS, he wasn't even using 2 word sentences - he had a vocabulary of around 15 words and around 10 signs...he now says over 100 words.

Yes, lots of those have come from the It Takes Two To Talk program I'm using at home that I had to pay for, but lots have also come from his desire to communicate with his peers, and the encouragement he is given at his preschool.

So please don't discount a preschool because it is based in a church hall, or because it has a less than Outstanding Ofsted rating - you might just be passing up a gem like DS3's preschool!

CouthyMow Thu 23-Jan-14 02:50:34

And this is all why I TOTALLY disagree that the roll-out should be delayed.

Why would you think that the actual CARE and SUPPORT aDC receives, and the PROGRESS that they make, would be 'substandard' just because of an Ofsted rating?

All it means, in my eyes, and in my experience, is that the preschool places more value on spending their time educating and caring for the children there than they do on bloody stupid paperwork...

CouthyMow Thu 23-Jan-14 02:56:23

Before visiting this preschool, I visited another that I had such grave concerns about their safeguarding that I reported personally my concerns to Ofsted in a letter. It did not surprise me when at their inspection in September (I visited in July, just before the end of the school year, due to a house move), they got a 'notice to improve'.

I wouldn't have left a hamster in their care, much less my DS3 with multiple complex needs...

THEIR previous Ofsted rating WAS 'Outstanding'...

CouthyMow Thu 23-Jan-14 03:02:46

An awful lit can change at a preschool in the years between Ofsted inspections. A new manager can take over, turning an awful preschool into an amazing one. And vice versa.

If you only look at Ofsted ratings, you may be getting a very skewed picture.

I advise all my friends to take Ofsted ratings with a pinch of salt, to visit as many preschools in their area as they can, and to go with their gut feeling about the preschool or nursery that suits THEIR child best.

When you find the right EY setting for your DC, you just 'know'. I'm glad I trusted my gut instinct rather than relying on Ofsted reports.

smiffy54 Thu 23-Jan-14 09:56:19

lottapianos makes a really important point; no matter the quality of childcare, the biggest part of a child's time is still with parent's carers. having been an early years teacher for 20 years, for the last 10 have been working in family/community development. Offering free accessible support to parents, both informal and more formal courses and workshops can make a huge difference. Also; trainiong and salaries; many pre-schools employ unqualifies staff or those working towards NVQ's; and do not have sufficient funds to pay for better qualified/experienced staff. There are 2yr olds in the nursery class in the LEA school where i work; have the privilege of 3 staff with B.Eds, although 1 employed as TA, and rest of staff well qualified and loads of experience.

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now