Education & Family

Free nursery place take-up 'scandalously poor'

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Image caption Early years education can improve children's chances in life

Sir Michael Wilshaw has highlighted the "scandalously poor performance" in getting the poorest toddlers to take up free nursery places in some areas.

The Ofsted chief said nearly a third of those from eligible disadvantaged families had not taken up the offer of free early years education last year.

Sir Michael said this equated to £200m of potential investment failing to reach those for whom it was intended.

The government said the scheme was providing high quality care.

Sir Michal said: "I am concerned that, as things stand, no-one is being held to account for this scandalously poor performance.

"As a result, the opportunity to directly influence the future path of thousands of poorer children is being lost."

Ofsted research, he said, had found the most effective local authorities had adapted their systems to make it easier for parents to get access to these entitlements.

They had also worked with schools and early years providers to ensure there were enough high quality places on offer, in the most appropriate settings.

But in other areas, council leaders were struggling to find enough early years providers who would offer places for two-year-olds.

Extra costs

"This was partly because many pre-school providers do not want to reduce the number of children whose parents pay a higher rate for their provision to accommodate a greater proportion of children on funded places that provide a lower return," Sir Michael said.

Many nurseries and pre-schools say they cannot manage the extra costs associated with the higher needs of these younger, disadvantaged children.

They are paid on average £5.09 an hour per child by the government, with the poorest two-year-olds entitled to 15 hours free childcare a week.

Sir Michael also highlighted how only the six of the 27 nurseries and childminders Ofsted had visited had prioritised admission for disadvantaged children, and how just five of the schools Ofsted went to had been prepared to take two-year-olds into early years classes despite being situated in the right areas.

"This is worrying," Sir Michael said.

"As I have made clear before, I firmly believe that schools are best placed to lead on the necessary help needed by very young children from disadvantaged homes who are at risk of falling behind."

'Quality costs'

A Department for Education spokesman said: "It is great that more two-year-olds from disadvantaged families are benefiting from free childcare and more providers are stepping up to deliver this offer - extending opportunity to all.

"We know quality childcare is hugely important for families and key to children's life chances.

"We are investing an extra £1bn per year by 2019-20 to help working families with the cost of childcare - so that parents can go back to work or work longer hours if they choose to."

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: "There's no doubt that high-quality early education plays a critical role in supporting children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and in helping to close the gap between these children and their wealthier peers.

"That said, quality costs, and the fact remains that many early years settings - and particularly those in disadvantaged areas - continue to struggle as a result of a lack of adequate funding.

"This has meant that, for many, delivering funded two-year-old places - which often involves providing one-to-one care and spending a significant amount of time working with external agencies - is not financially sustainable."

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