Pre-school Learning Alliance CEO Neil Leitch's keynote speech on 30 hours

Neil Leitch, chief executive, Pre-school Learning Alliance keynote speech delivered at the Pre-school Learning Alliance annual conference on Friday 10 June at the Park Plaza Riverbank, London.


It’s good to have the opportunity to share with you all why we at the Alliance do what we do, and why we take the approach that we tend to take. Because I can understand why, for colleagues at the DfE, we must be a real source of frustration sometimes.

Over the last few years, we’ve been – and I’ll be the first to say this – pretty critical of government. Not because we like to have a moan. But because as an organisation, we are committed to speaking out about very real, very valid concerns regarding policies that we believe are likely to have a negative impact on providers, and by extension, the very children and families that they support. And so we make no apology whatsoever for this.

Today, I want to start by talking to you briefly about two children who attend our own settings – two separate settings – and who, for obvious reason, I won’t identify.

On one Friday afternoon, I received an email from our Children’s Services Director, saying:

Hi Neil A new child started at the setting and staff noticed the mother had a strong smell of alcohol. The child is on a Child Protection Plan and the setting has been in contact with social care. The mother has been in prison and may need to return to (redacted) to complete her prison sentence.

The email went on to say: The mother moved to the area due to harassment from a (redacted) gang. The child has previously been in foster care after reported sexualised behaviour. We will of course be working closely with social care to support the mother and child.

On the Monday: Hi Neil, A child has just disclosed that his step-father ‘hits him around the head and throws him on the sofa when he’s mad’. When this was reported to the social worker, they said that they wanted to speak to the child and would come to the setting with the police and that we should keep the child with us until they arrived. When the mother and the step-father arrived at the setting they were not happy – the step-father entered the setting by pushing past another parent as they were leaving. He then grabbed the child and threatened to break the door down if he was not let out… and it goes on…

No matter how many of these emails I get, and I get far too many, I can tell you that they never fail to affect me. When I read these emails, I can’t help but imagine the fear and terror that these children experience – and I am also extremely conscious of the responsibility that sits on the shoulders of people who work in the sector and who are left to pick up the pieces.

Today I’m going to talk a lot about policy, about big picture issues, about evidence and statistics. But I wanted to start with these two examples, as a reminder to us all that we should never get too lost in the abstract. That when we talk about quality early years care, we are talking about supporting real children like these, day in and day out. And I feel it’s an important point to make before continuing.

Today, I want to focus – and I’m sure this is no surprise to you – on the 30 hours free entitlement offer. Because if this is not rolled out properly, the scheme could seriously put at risk our ability to continue doing what we do. Let me be clear, so there is no doubt, and no confusion on this point: the Alliance is not opposed to the 30 hour offer. On the contrary, we recognise the clear potential benefits for families, and that, as a manifesto promise, its roll-out is inevitable.

But what we want, is to ensure that the scheme actually works and I fail to see why that should be so controversial. And yet, those of us who have raised concerns about how the offer will actually work in practice have been accused of “doom mongering”, “manufacturing outcry” and by one tabloid source, of “being duplicitous in putting profits before the needs of parents”.

At best those comments are unhelpful up and at worst, pretty insulting to a sector that has had to bail out ill-conceived policies, time after time. I want to show you a few quotes about the 30 hours and see if you think they are unfairly critical. I don’t. And what’s even more telling? Not a single one of these is from the Alliance. They are from our fellow early years organisations, from teaching unions, from the House of Lords, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee.

So no, we are not the only organisation to voice our concerns about the viability of the scheme – far from it. But yes, we are the ones speaking out most loudly – as is our duty as the largest early years membership organisation in the country, a responsibility we take incredibly seriously – and from the quotes behind me, I hope you can see why.

For me, there are a few key questions that we need to be asking if we are going to ensure that the 30-hour scheme actually succeeds. When it comes to capacity, we’re told that all that will change under the 30 hour offer is that the Government will now be paying for the additional hours.

Really? There is not a shred of evidence to support this claim. The DfE’s own statistics show that on average three and four-year-olds currently take up just 18 hours of childcare – not 30. So where exactly are those extra 12 hours (that's 80% of the additional funded hours) coming from?

For voluntary settings, this falls to just 15.4 hours a week – so unless my sums are widely adrift, for these providers, doubling the entitlement could very much mean doubling the demand. So the argument that's been put forward in terms of capacity, simply does not wash.

With government funding models reliant on providers moving to absolute maximum ratios, and relying on more and more agency and temporary staff, there is a real danger that an increase in hours will mean a decline in quality - and this is something that we cannot allow to happen.

But as I have limited time today, I’m going to focus my comments on funding. Let me say first and foremost that as a sector that has been crying out for adequate funding for years, we of course welcome the promise of increased funding as a positive first step. But that’s exactly what it is: a first step. Because more funding is not the same as enough funding.

Updated independent research shows that, even with the increased rates, under the 30 hour scheme, PVI group settings will see a funding shortfall of at least £157m for three and four year olds, and £76m for two-year-olds, if the government achieves its uptake goal of around 75% – so a total shortfall of £233m. And let’s not forget, these are bare minimum figures – they don’t take into account any profit for future investment. Not exactly a responsible business model.

So the question is: why is it, after the Department has undertaken a large-scale cost review – one described as "a sound evidence base on which to ensure that the childcare market is properly funded" and “the most comprehensive analysis of this market” – that we are still in a position of underfunding?

The argument put forward has been that the increased rates reflect the 2000 responses submitted by providers in response to the DfE’s call for evidence carried out last summer. Except the DfE has actually said they were unable to use much of this data because most of those 2000 responses were “not supported by figures” – which isn’t particularly surprising given that they never actually asked for any, and told providers to submit “any information” they wished to provide.

And so, if you look at the appendix of the subsequent cost of childcare review, published in November, the data given to the government by the sector isn’t referenced once. In fact, much of the data underpinning the Department’s funding model, including key business costs such as staff wages, rent, mortgages, utilities, ratios and available places - were sourced, not from those 2000 responses, but from DfE surveys published as far back as May 2012. So by the time the offer is actually rolled out, this data will be five and a half years out of date.

How can you base a funding rate for 2017 on business costs from 2012? Imagine going to your local bank manager to ask for a loan and, when he or she asked for your accounts, giving them paperwork from five years ago? You’d be laughed out of their offices. And yet government sees fit to describe such figures as a ‘sound evidence base’.

Now I know that the Department has argued that we should wait for the consultation into a new national early years funding formula to know how the national average funding rate will translate to local rates to different providers. But if the national average is already too low because it’s based on outdated data, then we are already starting out with a deficit model. Of course, one way to test whether the sector’s funding fears are unfounded is through the so-called early implementer trials starting this September.

The problem is, a lot of decisions at the moment seem to be based on little more than guesswork. Why else would the Department say that the pilot areas would receive two different funding rates for the trial – one for the first 15 hours, and another for the additional 15 hours – only to change their minds a few weeks later, when the sector pointed out that this made no sense and would never work in practice?

I can’t help but feel a sense of ad-libbing, of ‘making it up as we go along’ on this, and for a scheme this important, that’s just not good enough. Providers deserve better than that. The children and families we support deserve better than that. Even more worryingly, we know that whatever way the government decides to deliver funding for the pilots may be completely different from how it will work for the actual scheme.

When providers in York threatened to pull out of their early implementer trial, the DfE admitted that the trial funding approach “is not a reflection of the final funding rate providers will get to deliver our 30 hour offer from next September [and that] this interim funding rate is specifically for areas that are starting to deliver our offer earlier for the additional hours.”

So not only are we starting off from an inadequate basis, we are also now facing the prospect of introducing a whole new funding system next year that is completely untested. And what happens in the meantime? The promised funding increase, which as we’ve seen, isn’t actually enough to plug the gap, still doesn’t kick in for the vast majority of providers until next year.

Given that the government has at long-last acknowledged that providers are currently underfunded, why has the sector been left to struggle on these inadequate funding rates for another year? So yes, we want 30 hours to succeed but in light of the evidence, our concerns are not unreasonable. And while we will continue to work directly with government and other parties, again we make no apology for speaking out more widely on behalf of our members and the wider sector.

Because speaking out does work, as much as it can sometimes feel like no one’s listening. Just look at ratios, baseline assessments, qualifications – all changes brought about by the sector. And what's more all avoidable u-turns if government had bothered to consult at the outset.

These are significant examples of what the sector can achieve when it speaks with one voice. When it has the confidence to say: “We are the experts, we know what’s best for children’s early learning, and we are telling you, this isn’t the way.”

I want to finish by talking about what I think is the most positive example of the sector taking the lead, and crucially, working in partnership with policy makers, and that is the recent changes with Ofsted. Because it wasn’t all that long ago that the general mood when it came to Ofsted was pretty negative.

We heard story after story of unfair inspections and providers falling foul of malicious anonymous complaints. Now I am not suggesting that all is cured, and for providers on the end of an unfair judgement, it is absolutely devastating – and these cases still need to be addressed. But through a genuine partnership approach – one where Ofsted listened to sector concerns and took them on board – we have made real progress over the past several months.

We’ve seen a more proportionate approach taken to complaint-driven inspections. We’ve seen the introduction of independent provider representation on complaints scrutiny panels. And crucially, we’ve seen a promise to move early years inspections back in-house when the current third-party contracts end.

All this is a testament to not only the sector, and in particular, all those who involved the Ofsted Big Conversation, but also to officials at Ofsted who were willing to talk, were willing to listen and were willing to think: yes, maybe there is a better way we could be doing things. It’s an example of how working together to achieve a joint aim can actually work in practice.

We at the Alliance meet regularly with Ofsted representatives. And we meet regularly with representatives from No. 10. But interestingly, when it comes to our relationship with the DfE, the attitude has all too often been: ‘If you can’t say something positive, don’t say anything at all.’ This is something that needs to change.

In the end, all of us, every single person in this room, wants the same thing. We want all children to have access to high quality education and care. We want parents and carers have access to reliable, affordable, accessible provision. And not unreasonably, we want providers to be adequately supported to deliver all of this in a sustainable way.

There’s no denying the tension between providers and government at the moment. But if we are going to continue providing the kind of support, care and love that those two children I spoke about at the beginning of my speech need and deserve, the sector needs to be more than just consulted with. It needs to see that it has actually been listened to. Thank you.

For further information or to interview, Neil Leitch, Chief Executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, please contact:

Emma Caldwell
Pre-school Learning Alliance
T: 020 7697 2598
E: Emma Caldwell


Notes for editors

  1. The Pre-school Learning Alliance is the largest voluntary sector provider of quality affordable childcare and education in England.
  2. Through direct provision and its membership of 14,000 nurseries, sessional pre-schools and parent and toddler groups, the Alliance supports over 800,000 children and their families in England. The Alliance also develops and runs family learning programmes, offers information and advice, runs acclaimed training and accreditation programmes and campaigns to influence early years policy and practice.
  3. For information about the Pre-school Learning Alliance, visit our website:

More press releases