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DfE not yet hit full value for money with 15 hours free childcare

Despite making significant progress with the 15 hours free childcare scheme for parents of three and four year olds, the Department for Education (DfE) has not yet achieved full value for money, the National Audit Office has said.

According to the NAO’s latest report, Entitlement to free early education and childcare, the department cannot track the effectiveness of the £2.7 billion it has allocated for free childcare in 2015- 6.

“Many parents and children are benefitting from the entitlement to free childcare, but the department does not yet know what long term outcomes it is getting for its investment of nearly £3 billion a year,” said Amyas Morse, head of the NAO.

The quality of provision has increased in recent years, as has children’s outcomes at age five, and in 2015 66% of children reached a good level of development compared to 52% in 2013. However, the department cannot link this data to the quality of individual childcare settings children have attended and from 2017 the existing measure of development is being halted.

With the department now set to double this entitlement from 15 to 30 free hours, the NAO has said that the government will have to consider a number of risks as it pilots the new offer later this year. The first of which, is ensuring that the correct funding is available.

Neil Leitch, chief executive at the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said that he welcomes the report from the NAO, particularly its emphasis on the need to ensure that the 30-hour offer is funded adequately.

“Many early years providers have endured real-term cuts in funding over recent years, meaning that the sector has had to rely on additional payments from parents and the goodwill of practitioners to stay afloat, a solution that is simply not feasible in the long term,” he said. “While we welcome the planned increase in early years funding, independent research commissioned by the Alliance suggests that this will still leave PVI providers facing a 10% shortfall. What’s more, unless the government has a strategy to ensure both that funding is passed on in full to providers on the frontline and that funding levels continue to cover the delivery costs in the long term, the current situation will not improve.”