Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 35 of Session 2003-04, dated 7 September 2004


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today welcomed the growth in the number of childcare and early education places available but warned that there still are many parents who cannot get or afford pre-school places for their children, particularly in London and in pockets of deprivation outside the areas that are being targeted by the Department for Education and Skills.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 35th Report of this Session, which examined the progress made by the Department for Education and Skills and the interdepartmental Sure Start Unit in increasing the supply of early years provision (childcare and education for children below compulsory school age), improving choice for parents and delivering improvements in standards of care.

Research shows that high quality childcare and education have beneficial impacts on child development whilst lack of accessible, affordable childcare can be a barrier to work for parents of young children. The Government has therefore increased expenditure on early years provision to enhance children's learning, support welfare to work policies and combat child poverty. Since 1997-98, government spending on 0-4 year olds has risen in real terms from £2 billion to £3.6 billion in 2002-03, in support of the National Childcare Strategy and a number of other government initiatives designed to increase the accessibility, affordability and quality of childcare and early education. The Department's current target is to create a further 160,000 net places for 280,000 children by 2006.

The Committee found that there has been good progress in increasing the supply of early education, but the Department needs to tackle the risks to the viability of provision and the regional gaps in supply, and spend the increasing funds cost-effectively.

Public funding should be linked to evidence that providers are well-run. Grants should be conditional on providers having a realistic business plan, showing they have assessed local demand and made reasonable estimates of their cash flows. The progress of government-funded provision in disadvantaged areas needs to be closely tracked so that resources can be transferred from providers which fail to attract business to those which are more successful.

The Department should set a target minimum number of places per 100 children at local authority level and move as quickly as resources permit to a position where no area has less than this. Government investment is now seeking to increase availability in particularly deprived areas. But the Department needs to watch the risk of neglecting other areas where supply is inadequate for reasons such as past patterns of investment. The Department should develop its early years programmes for deprived children outside disadvantaged areas. There are pockets of deprivation in otherwise affluent areas and there is a danger that these people will be overlooked. For example, the Department should assess whether its pilot work in rural areas results in improved provision for deprived families.

School premises are an under-used resource but many schools have been reluctant to provide childcare. Schools are well-placed to meet unmet demand for childcare in deprived areas, in London and particularly outside normal working hours. There is scope for planning in childcare provision when new schools are built and the Department needs to assist existing schools to make their premises available. There should be a specific strategy for early years provision in London given the particular problems faced in the capital.

The Department should be able to show that childcare has become more affordable for all and remains so. Free early education and the childcare element of the working tax credit were introduced to help families, especially those on low-incomes, afford childcare. More research is needed to assess the impact on the affordability of childcare across the country. Support which increases demand for childcare places needs to be balanced by sufficient increased supply to help control the price. The Government should also re-examine the choices available to parents of very young children, working with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Treasury to examine whether there is genuine choice for parents between returning to work and looking after a child at home, taking into account the research evidence on the benefits of parental care.

Ofsted should adopt a risk-based approach to inspections of early years providers. Childcare and day-care providers are currently inspected on initial registration and subsequently every two years. A risk-based approach would involve more frequent inspections for poorer-performing providers and longer intervals between inspections for better-performers. The Department should also assess the extent of unregistered childminders and the barriers to registration. There is evidence that providers are by-passing regulation by failing to register with Ofsted.

The Department should bring best practice in developing the childcare workforce to the attention of local authorities and their partners. The best performing local authorities work in partnership with colleges and the voluntary sector, to provide training opportunities and monitor staff training in detail. Lack of appropriately trained staff is a serious threat to sustainability and the problem is particularly acute for certain types of provision, such as for children with disabilities.

Mr Leigh said today:

"I welcome the progress that has been made in increasing the number of childcare and early education places available, with a net growth of 325,000 places by 2003. But I am very concerned that there still are many parents who cannot get, or afford, pre-school places for their children. London has the lowest levels of provision, and there are pockets of deprivation that lie outside the poorest areas being targeted by the Department. And mothers of very young children still have little choice, financially, but to return to work.

The Department must urgently address sustainability issues, providing public funding only to properly run providers who offer good quality care, and spreading best practice in training childcare workers. The Department must also address the risk of neglecting some deprived areas, develop a specific strategy for London, and do more to support schools in expanding from nursery care to childcare."

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