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23 February 2015 | Childcare & Education

Partnership is key to deliver effective and sustainable childcare provision

Childcare provision has recently been at the forefront of the news following Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) Nick Clegg’s speech setting out the Liberal Democrat manifesto commitments on childcare, including providing 15 hours a week of free childcare to all working parents, for all children aged between 9 months and two years.

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Here, Courteney Donaldson, Director and Head of Childcare at Christie + Co who was at the event and heard the speech, sets out her thoughts on future childcare provision.

During his speech Nick Clegg commented that Government ‘dictates the hourly rate of £5.09 to local Authorities and while not ring-fenced, we will continue to push Local Authorities to pass on as much of this funding as possible to frontline providers’.

While much discussion has been held around ring-fencing, listening to the DPM speak my thoughts paused on his use of the word ‘dictate’ – Why? Well to look forward we have to look back. The Labour Party’s policy to guarantee ‘free – subsidised’ nursery education places was borne through their desire to develop partnerships, and from April 1999 all local authorities had a statutory duty to provide 12.5hrs of nursery education free of charge for 4 year olds. Sixteen years on we learn via manifesto announcements that in broad terms there are intentions to move essentially toward free entitlement for all children aged 9 months to 5 years.

Childcare provision is likely to be at the forefront of many manifestos, and indeed Nick Clegg is not the first to announce, that upon successful election his party’s wish and intention would be to increase free entitlement – indeed other parties have muted increases to 25hrs per week.

However such aspirations can only ever be implemented if partnerships are developed. As reported in 2014 by Laing & Buisson, the private sector comprising not for profit, sole traders and partnerships, accounts for circa 75% of the total provision, comprising some 11,655 settings. So, Government fundamentally needs the services of the private sector in order to implement its agendas for early years children, families and indeed the national economy.

While a bulk purchaser of nursery places might expect to negotiate some bulk purchasing discounts in the B2B world, given the intrinsic need for partnership – should Government ‘dictate’ the hourly rate? Surely it should be a matter for debate between the service supplier and service purchaser? Or at very least the suppliers’ national representatives or membership body should be awarded the opportunity to negotiate on a geographic or region by region basis, thus facilitating considerations of varying costs of delivery depending on supply, workforce and operational cost factors.

Providers are fundamental to the Government in delivering early education yet, while extended entitlement for both recipients’ ages and hours are being announced in manifestos – providers have not been consulted, but they will be expected to deliver in partnership. While all parties have undoubtedly spent significant time and investment in appraising respective costings based on their intended entitlement ‘extension’ plans, it’s interesting how such can be done without asking the supplier what the additional cost may be were they to purchase more hours.

Government and providers seek the same objectives – to give every child the best possible start in life and access to the highest quality of early education and care possible. But, quality care costs. Such costs need to be met and indeed ideally, a degree of surplus should be built-in to allow for continual reinvestment in staff, resources and facilities.

All parties’ objectives can be reached, with children and families being the greatest beneficiaries – but to do such, Government and providers must develop more meaningful partnerships. Communication, discussion and debate must be held in order for both purchasers and provider to gain a better understanding of the costs and supply of such initiatives.

When Governments seek to privatise services, extensive discussions and media coverage abounds, both national and international in some cases. For example, consider Royal Mail. It would appear that when seeking to potentially nationalise a service, the complete opposite may be the case. There were allegations that the Government had undervalued Royal Mail last year, let us hope they don’t make the same mistake with the UK’s private childcare providers collective.

These discussions and debate relate to the long-term sustainability of the sector. I think that the proposals outlined could be a good crutch to parents and families, but without adequate funding, extended free early years education, could prove to be the Achilles heel to the growth agenda and presently improving economy.
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