Alliance files new ICO complaint following DfE refusal to release new funding information

Leading early years organisation the Early Years Alliance has filed a new complaint to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) after the Department for Education (DfE) rejected a request for proof that the latest increase in early years funding is enough to cover rising wage costs. 

In April, the Alliance filed a Freedom of Information request to the DfE asking for the calculations underpinning the government’s claim that the £44m increase in early years funding, which came into effect in April 2021, is enough to cover the increase in statutory wage costs, including the extension of the national living wage to 23- and 24-year-olds, a claim that has been repeatedly made in Parliament. 

Children and families minister Vicky Ford previously confirmed plans to publish this information during a public meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Children and Early Education. During the meeting, which took place on 19 January 2021, the minister stated: 

“In terms of funding, the work that we did with Treasury when we agreed that £44m for 6p for three- and four-year-olds, the 8p for two-year-olds, we are going to share maths underpinning that. We’ve agreed to do that with the sector to show how that should more than cover the uplift in the minimum wage when that comes in in April. It’s to do with the ratios ... you’re getting the increased funding for all the children and yet you have a ratio of one member of staff to x number of children but we will be passing the maths behind that on.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VDdPOCnfhdE – around 25.30) 

The Department rejected the Alliance's request on the basis that it already plans to release “a document which considers the rate at which early years providers are funded for delivering entitlements and looks at the average cost of delivering childcare entitlements, based on various relevant inputs – including the minimum wage”. However, no deadline or timescale was given for the publication of this document. 

While the Freedom of Information Act does allow public bodies to refuse to release information if they are planning to publish it at a later date (Section 22 of the Act), this applies when the body has confirmed that: 

  • there is a publication deadline, though publication could be at any date before then; 
  • publication will take place once other actions have been completed; 
  • publication will take place by reference to other related events; or 
  • there is a draft publication schedule that hasn’t been finalised. 

The Alliance has appealed to the ICO arguing that these conditions have not been met, and also, that it is not clear whether the document the Department has referred to will detail the exact calculations underpinning the government’s assertion that the £44m increase in early years funding is enough to cover the increase in statutory wage costs, as per the original request. 

Earlier this year, the Alliance published government briefing documents, obtained after a two-year FOI battle, which revealed that early years funding rates for 2020/21 were less than two-thirds of what government officials estimated to be the true cost of ‘fully funding’ the sector. 

Commenting, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Alliance, said: 

“After spending two years trying to hide information which proved that it was knowingly underfunding the sector, the government's latest obstructive actions are disappointing, but sadly not surprising. 

“The Department for Education has been claiming for months now, including in Parliament, that the 1% increase in early years funding rates that came into effect in April was more than enough to pay for the more than 2% increase in national living and minimum wages. So where’s the proof? It is simply not good enough to say ‘We’ll prove it at some point’ when these rates have been in effect for more than four months now. 

“For years, early years providers have been struggling to survive on funding rates the government knew were inadequate. They have been left to face the huge challenges of the pandemic with wholly inadequate support. As a sector, we have suffered a net loss of more than 2,000 providers over the past year. Surely the Department for Education can understand why we might find it difficult to take these latest funding claims on trust alone. 

“The government needs to stop dragging it feet, and commit to releasing this important information without further delay.”