Sheffield worries over how to cope with big expansion of free childcare

Sheffield is potentially facing a crisis coping with a major expansion of free childcare places on offer to working families with pre-school children that could see nurseries stretched to cope.
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A meeting of the council’s education, children and families policy committee heard this week (February 26) that changes first announced by the government in spring 2023 start to come into force from April.

A rolling programme of changes running to September 2025 will mean that parents and carers of babies from nine months old will have the right to 30 hours a week of free childcare places. Councillors worry that the city childcare system will be unable to cope.

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Under the plan, working parents of children aged from nine months until they start school will be able to claim 30 hours of free childcare a week for 38 weeks of the year.

Parents and carers can take advantage of a big expansion in free childcare for pre-school children and babies from April 2024Parents and carers can take advantage of a big expansion in free childcare for pre-school children and babies from April 2024
Parents and carers can take advantage of a big expansion in free childcare for pre-school children and babies from April 2024

From April 2024, working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare. This September, that will be extended to include children from the age of nine months.

A year after that, the full 30 hours of free childcare will be on offer as outlined above.

The council is receiving government funding totalling £3.629 million to help deliver the extended service, as well as managing government grant aid of £14.7 million going to early years providers.

Councillor Karen McGowan voiced her concerns about the number of childcare places available in the city at Sheffield City Council's education, children and families policy committee. Picture: Sheffield Council webcastCouncillor Karen McGowan voiced her concerns about the number of childcare places available in the city at Sheffield City Council's education, children and families policy committee. Picture: Sheffield Council webcast
Councillor Karen McGowan voiced her concerns about the number of childcare places available in the city at Sheffield City Council's education, children and families policy committee. Picture: Sheffield Council webcast
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Start-up funding for wraparound care – expanding breakfast and after-school club places in primary schools to all pupils – will also start to be rolled out in September. Parents and carers have to pay for those services but subsidies are available.

The aim is for wraparound care to be self-sufficient by September 2026. The council is receiving £2.678 million from the government to help providers fund start-up work, including £294,000 to cover its own costs for running the scheme.

A report to the committee forecasts that between 2,068 and 2,169 additional two-year-olds will take up the extended childcare entitlement in April, an increase of more than 100 per cent.

The report says that there is capacity for approximately 2,070 new places from April 2024, which appears to be sufficient to meet the demand.

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It adds: “However, if demand is significantly higher than forecast, this would pose a significant challenge. Demand and supply will continue to be monitored to oversee this risk.”

Work is underway to look at the possible effects of the second and third phases, described as “uncharted territory” by one council chief.

Capacity

A survey of parents and carers undertaken last summer indicated that 70 per cent of the 108 people who responded wanted more childcare and said it would help them to work or train.

Committee chair Coun Dawn Dale criticised the way the new programme has been brought in.

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She said: “The whole issue about this is it feels like it’s been speedily rolled out, not really well thought through. My worry is about that capacity – we’ve had lots of conversations in the sector – lots of nurseries have closed, lots of nurseries that are open have closed their baby rooms because they needed space for two-year-olds, three-year-olds and four-year-olds.”

She said that, although she is confident staff will have the skills to cope with more babies, it is still a big ask in such a short lead-in time.

Coun Dale added: “If parents are being told that they are entitled to paid-for childcare, and they go a nursery and they’re over capacity, then how are we going to manage that?”

She also said that staff historically feel under-valued and many leave for better-paid jobs at supermarkets.

Chaos

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Coun Paul Turpin said: “I think my daughter, who is 10 now, was at nursery when changes first came in. I remember seeing the difference because, in order to make it work financially – and it was a really nice nursery and it was still a nice nursery – but they went from something like a maximum of 20 kids in the room to up to 30 kids and you’ve got to start paying for your snacks and your dinner.

“That was how they changed their business model to carry on but it was still a good service. But the chaos from 30 kids in a room is greater than the chaos with 20 kids in a room.”

Joe Horobin, council director of integrated commissioning, said there are strict rules about the amount of space per child depending on age. “That should mean we don’t have 30 children squeezed into a room that is only big enough according to Ofsted, for 20.

“However, as you say, providers will have to maximise the space.”

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She added that a slightly higher ratio of children to adults will be allowed but only if they have the floorspace.

Unrealistic

Coun Dianne Hurst said: “I am really concerned about this – it is such a lot of change to bring about at a really fast pace when we know that the sector has been really badly hit over the last couple of years and we simply don’t have the capacity.”

She said private providers have been unable to cope with underfunding and forced to close. She said that it is unrealistic to expect businesses to take out loans to expand in that situation.

Coun Hurst asked if the council would be able to cope with any explosion in demand.

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Ms Horobin said she believes the council is in a reasonable position to respond to initial demands. “The challenge will be as our expectation grows and word spreads, whether the provision can keep up with demand.

“That said, this is uncharted territory really, we haven’t been in this place for a very long time, and I think everyone nationally is watching very closely.

"I suspect that civil servants are biting their nails just as much at Whitehall as we are here in Sheffield.”

Coun Karen McGowan said that she is a trustee of a pre-school where there is no capacity to expand. It already has a waiting list and parents put their children’s names down before birth.