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Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)


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How prepared are we for the roll-out of the early education entitlements? No-one really knows …

By Blog Editor, on 24 April 2024

By Dr Claire Crawford

Today saw the release of a report from the National Audit Office – the public spending watchdog – assessing the Department for Education’s (DfE’s) preparedness for the rollout of the new early education entitlements. We’ve all read and heard the media reports about how unprepared local authorities and providers are for what’s coming. Warning bells have been sounded for some time. What do things look like from inside the Department? Are they as bad as they seem?

Some of the figures are certainly eye-watering: an additional 85,000 places required by September 2025, delivered by an additional 40,000 staff. But the uncertainty over these estimates is at least as large: while DfE’s central estimate for the number of additional staff required by September 2025 is 40,000, this could be as high as 64,000 or as low as 17,000 according to the Department’s estimates.

The report certainly doesn’t make easy reading for those charged with implementing this policy. But one of the main takeaways for me is just how much effort has gone into figuring out how many more places and staff will be required to deliver on this huge promise – which is not an easy task. We have virtually no evidence internationally, let alone in the UK, that tells us how responsive parents of 0-2 year olds are to childcare subsidies. Very few other countries in the world have done anything like what we are attempting in England at the moment. We just don’t know whether there are reservoirs of parents – let’s face it, mostly mothers – with very small children just itching to get back into the workforce or to increase their hours. Or whether, actually, when push comes to shove, they would prefer to stop working, or to work part-time, while their children are young. We are about to test that hypothesis on a grand scale.

But unlike researchers who can just sit back and wait to evaluate what happens post hoc, policymakers have to try to estimate parental demand, to understand just how hard they (and local authorities) need to work to ensure there are enough places (and enough staff to deliver those places). The Department is doing its best to answer this exam question. (Although it is disappointing to hear that a planned pilot was ruled out for affordability reasons – what a missed opportunity!) Their estimate of the number of entitlement ‘codes’ requested by parents – which they need in order to claim the funded hours for their child – in advance of the initial rollout of 15 hours of care for 2-year-olds, which began earlier this month, is, frankly, scarily accurate (246,833 against a prediction of 246,000). It’s not clear from the NAO report when that prediction was made, and of course this is at the easier end of the prediction scale: this first phase of the rollout was always going to largely be about subsidising families who were already using formal childcare, which we have data about. Some of the children who will be eligible for the rollout in September 2025 haven’t even been born yet.

One other nugget that leapt out at me from the report is that for a policy whose primary motivation is to improve the labour supply of parents, actually the Department expects the majority of benefits (around two thirds) to arise not from the short-term benefits of higher parental labour supply, but from the much longer-term potential benefits to the children themselves, who may be accessing more formal early education than they otherwise would have done as a result of the policy.

It would be wonderful to get under the hood of these estimates and see how much of this is predicated on them accessing high quality provision – whose importance is somewhat lost because of the focus on labour supply. But, in any case, because the policy is targeted on children in working families, these benefits will not be accruing to the most disadvantaged children in society. The Department clearly recognises the risk that this will increase inequalities – indeed, the report reveals that they explored extending entitlements for disadvantaged children alongside the extension for working families during pre-budget discussions with HM Treasury. That clearly didn’t end up being part of the government’s chosen approach. But the absence of such a countervailing policy puts the onus even more firmly back on the Department to take other policy action over the coming years to prevent the gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers from widening even further.

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