The government is in disarray over how much of the 30 hours of free childcare should have an “educational focus”, according to early years campaigners.
The divisions were highlighted in a letter that environment minister Thérèse Coffey sent to campaigners this week regarding a recent meeting she had with Suffolk MPs, Department for Education officials, and children and families minister Robert Goodwill.
In the letter, Dr Coffey stated that the funding of the government’s 30-hour policy “is largely based on the premise that the 30 hours’ equivalent (based on term-time provision) is split into 15 hours of education provision and 15 hours of general childcare without a specific educational focus”.
But her remarks are in stark contrast to the position of the Department for Education, which states that “all funded provision must deliver the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework. There is no difference in the education and care standards which must be met for both the universal 15-hour and extended 30-hour entitlements”.
The difference in views comes just weeks after the government’s policy of 30-hours free early education for three and four-year-olds was rolled out across England.
Neil Leitch, Pre-School Learning Alliance chief executive, said: “It beggars belief that at this stage of the policy process, there’s still confusion over what the 30 hours actually is.” He added that “both the DfE and Ofsted have been very clear that there should be no difference in the way that the universal 15 hours and the extended 15 hours are delivered in practice”.
Mr Leitch said: “Is the suggestion that after a child has used up their first 15 hours, all learning stops? That providers down tools and simply babysit them until their parents arrive?”
He called on the DfE to “provide clarity on this issue as a matter of urgency, and to ensure that all providers delivering the extended scheme are being funded to deliver 30 full hours of quality education and care across the board, and nothing less”.
Mr Leitch has written to Dr Coffey to inform her that she is “incorrect” in her understanding of the 30-hours policy. His letter to her concluded: “As a minister with previous responsibility for rural childcare, I hope you will seek clarity on this issue as a matter of priority”.
A DfE spokesperson said: “The department has been clear in correspondence and in guidance for providers that all funded provision must meet the requirements of the Early Years Foundation Stage Framework - whether this is through the universal 15 hour offer or extended 30 hour entitlements."
They added: “We are investing a record £6bn in childcare, including the increased rates paid to councils under our funding formula to deliver 30 hours – which is already being successfully delivered to thousands of parents around the country.”
Dr Coffey has been approached for comment.