In general, technical law setting out how funding is administered by government is not something that generally gets people excited as it sails through the legislative process with cursory glances and the odd amendment. But the Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill that will be debated by the Assembly over the coming weeks will undoubtedly attract more attention than usual having already been widely criticised by the Childrenâ€™s Commissioner for Wales, by anti-poverty campaigners, by organisations from across the early childhood education and care sector and by a number of Assembly members both in, and out of Committee.
The proposed Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill is a very short (at just over four pages) bill which outlines the regulatory and funding framework to implement Welsh Labourâ€™s key 2016 manifesto commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare per week (over 48 weeks) for 3 and 4-year-olds of working parents. While the policy is in essence welcomed by many, it is the restriction of the scheme to working parents that has drawn wide censure and asks questions of Welsh Governmentâ€™s commitment towards issues of child poverty and educational under-achievement, while adding further complexity to an already unwieldy UK-wide system of funding for childcare.
The Welsh Labour commitment is similar to a plan announced in the 2015 Conservative general election manifesto in England but current patterns of early years provision and take-up in Wales are very different, making implementing the policy a challenge.
This has already been highlighted in the seven local authority areas currently piloting the Welsh Government â€˜Childcare Offerâ€™ that are struggling to spend the funding allocated to the scheme because of low take-up by parents. Thatâ€™s because essentially the 30 hours â€˜free childcareâ€™ is disingenuous â€“ laying bare a problematic split system between early years education and childcare. What children actually receive with the new offer is 10 hours of Foundation Phase early education that theyâ€™re already entitled to and 20 hours of free childcare â€“ and with 90% of Welsh three year olds receiving their Foundation Phase entitlement in schools, to take up the new offer most parents have to make arrangements to transport their children between school and childcare provider in the middle of the day. Unless their children attend one of the few schools in Wales to provide â€˜wrap-aroundâ€™ care and education many working parents are unsurprisingly finding the offer difficult to take up. And thatâ€™s probably a good thing for Welsh Government as research has found that if all eligible parents wanted their free 30 hours there is nowhere near enough childcare to go around.
While the policy highlights structural problems with the early years system in Wales, it is the restriction of the offer to working parents that has caused most campaigners to object to the Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill. Evidence from evaluation of the scheme in England along with anecdotal evidence from the Childcare Offer pilots in Wales suggests that limiting funding to working parents will mostly benefit better-off families who are in secure, well-paid employment. This has raised concerns among many including Save the Children Wales who recently stated that because of the eligibility issues, children in poverty will miss out on the high quality early education and care that could help prevent them starting school behind their better off peers leading to in some cases, a lifetime if disadvantage. After hearing a wide range of evidence, the Assemblyâ€™s own Children, Young People and Education Committee report on the Bill concurred, concluding that the focus on working parents could actually widen the gap between rich and poor in Wales. The Childrenâ€™s Commissioner for Wales has gone further making it clear that she cannot support a policy of state investment in the early years that will widen inequality for young children.
Welsh Government have argued that the Childcare Offer is about increasing employment opportunities for parents to work and will therefore have an impact on child poverty in the long run. Yet as set out in a detailed report by Public Policy Institute for Wales the effect of the policy will be to raise work participation in Wales by just 0.1 percentage points. This is partly because of the widespread use of informal childcare in Wales â€“ where children are cared for by mainly grandparents. In all likelihood, the Childcare Offer will merely lead to parents already in work substituting informal childcare with free formal childcare. Maternal employment levels will therefore not be affected but government will have incurred a considerable cost without a commensurate return in tax contributions or increased employment levels.
Yet, the policy does have the potential to disrupt many childrenâ€™s daily lives (as their parents move in and out of eligible work) and puts high pressure on parents and informal carers to organise transfers between school and childcare services, and by widening inequalities it would also seem to be contrary to Welsh Government commitments to place all childrenâ€™s interests at the heart of policy-making.
Some critics might argue that these are the unintended consequences of another policy pinched magpie-like from other UK nations (see the commentary on Mark Drakefordâ€™s Baby Box idea for another) reflecting a lack of original political ideas and leadership in Wales. Even the Minister responsible â€“ Huw Irranca-Davies â€“ has distanced himself from the policy, saying in his bid for the Labour leadership that the Childcare Offer is â€˜only part of the longer-term visionâ€™. Whether his longer-term vision is shared by others in Welsh Government is unknown, but international evidence along with advice from their own advisors is that only a complete and visionary overhaul of the current system replaced by an integrated, universal high quality early years system can provide positive outcomes for all parents and children in Wales.
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