Every family with preschool children would love a bit more free childcare. What’s that you say – you want to double my child’s entitlement to free nursery? Where do I sign?
But while families will welcome the prospect of saving hundreds of pounds every month, I’m not convinced that giving all three- and four-year-olds 30 hours a week of free nursery during term-time is the best use of public money. And that’s pretty much what public spending watchdog Audit Scotland told the government in a report published last week.
The Scottish government has said that it wants to get two things out of increasing free nursery hours from 600 a year to 1,140 by 2020: it wants to improve outcomes for disadvantaged children and to support parents to work, train and study.
Audit Scotland has said there is no evidence to suggest that increasing entitlement for those children already in nursery will improve outcomes. This is what the 17-year longitudinal survey, the Effective Pre-School, Primary and Secondary Education project found. It said that when it came to children’s outcomes, half days in nursery were as good as full days, as long as the quality of the nursery was good.
Audit Scotland suggests that, rather than increasing the current entitlement, the government should have explored options such as offering free hours before the age of 3, when many families receive no support, or targeting disadvantaged families with more hours.
What Audit Scotland is saying is that the government needs to show that it knows it is getting the best bang for its buck.
And in this case it will be spending a lot of bucks – Audit Scotland says the move to 1,140 hours per year is likely to cost £1 billion every 12 months. To put that in context, we currently spend £420 million a year on free early learning and childcare and around £4.2 billion on pre-school, primary and secondary education combined.
The £1 billion per year is the revenue cost of the expansion. Councils are also estimating that they will spend £690 million building new nurseries and adapting the ones they have got.
Meanwhile we have councils cutting school budgets, central support for schools, teacher numbers and the subject choice in secondary (including vocational courses) – paring back the things the evidence shows are linked to improved attainment.
It seems clear that – in the beginning, at least – we should have taken a targeted approach to extending free childcare. We should have given parents who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to afford to go back to work or to embark on a course the option of more free hours.
This would also have put less pressure on the system and allowed us to build capacity more gradually. Councils estimate they are going to need 12,000 additional full-time staff to deliver the 1,140 hours promise – more than double the number we have currently. Faced with having to recruit those kinds of numbers, just how discerning are nurseries going to be able to be when it comes to who they employ?
As Audit Scotland points out, the government has said repeatedly that having good quality pre-school settings is of paramount importance as the free hours rise – but it has yet to define what that looks like for councils.
Researchers from longitudinal survey Growing Up in Scotland warned earlier this year that the expansion could lead to worse outcomes for children if standards in pre-school slip as a result. In other words, this could widen the attainment gap, not help close it.
Let’s put all these pieces together: more free nursery might sound tempting, but who in their right mind would sign up for that?