There was an announcement yesterday that the government has decided to bow to pressure and review the Early Years Free Entitlement Code of Practice. This sets out the rules and guidance for the 15 hours free nursery education which children are entitled to from the start of the term after they turn three.
There has been a national campaign for the Conservative Party to stick to its pre-election promise and allow private settings to charge ‘top-up’ fees. It seems likely that the review will result in this being allowed. This is good news for nurseries who are struggling to make ends meet because they currently have to give parents 15 hours free per week with no compulsory extra charges. It would mean they could insist that parents pay the difference between what the Local Authority gives the setting to provide the free entitlement (e.g. £3.50 per hour) and what they normal charge to cover costs (and/or make a profit) (e.g. £5.00 per hour). Personally, I do not think the money paid by the LEA should have to cover profits made by private businesses; others will disagree. What is certainly the case is that without the Graduate Leader Fund or some similar funding mechanism, the amount paid by Local Authorities is not enough to cover costs when staff are well qualified. You can’t expect and would have difficulty finding, a suitable Early Years graduate who will work for £8.50 per hour, which is the absolute most I could afford to pay someone (and I do not make a profit).
If the Code of Practice changes and I am allowed to charge ‘top-ups’ I could in theory charge parents an extra £1.00 per hour for each of the 15 hours and this would generate an extra £5000 income over a typical 13 week term. This would resolve any worries I have about income for my business; in fact it would allow me to employ another graduate on 0.5 FTE which would be fantastic. The problem with this is that my parents can’t afford £15.00 per week. My nursery is in a deprived area, doing exactly the sort of thing the Government says is important: providing high quality (OFSTED ‘outstanding’ June 2010) pre-school education with signposting to other services, advice, support and training for teenage Mums, support for families with EAL and children with SEN. Most parents are single or live in households where no-one has paid employment and £15.00 a week is too much. This would prevent their children from coming to my setting. I don’t think this is right; these children have, if anything, an extra need to attend a good quality nursery.
Another concern I have is that allowing top-up fees will enable the hourly funding which Local Authorities give settings to be reduced further (locally, ours is likely at best to be frozen which is a real terms cut especially with VAT rises etc). For example, LAs could give settings £2.50 an hour and claim it is adequate because the setting is allowed to charge parents the difference. This wouldn’t work in my setting and I would have to close the nursery meaning that local children would not have access to a good quality nursery place. I would have to make four people redundant who would then be claiming benefits, costing the taxpayer money.
Hopefully, all this will be thought through before any changes are made…