Borough ready for free nursery place doubling

Wigan is better placed than many to cope with the childcare revamp
Wigan is better placed than many to cope with the childcare revamp

Wigan Council chiefs are confident the borough can avoid a nurseries crisis predicted to hit many parts of the country when the number of free hours available to pre-schoolers doubles later this year.

Under major reforms from this September, three and four-year-olds in England will be entitled to 30 free hours of care a week during term time - twice as much as they currently receive.

Wigan borough was one of the areas of the country to pilot the scheme and town hall bosses say this has helped to give them an edge.

But a new poll of local authorities in England, conducted by the Family and Childcare trust, found uncertainty about the impact of the change.

Around 54 per cent of those questioned said they did not know if they would have enough childcare available for youngsters using the 30 hours, while a further 13 per cent there would not be enough.

A third said that there would be sufficient places.

More than two thirds said they thought some childcare providers in their area will not offer the entitlement to 30 free hours of care, while more than half thought that the change would mean more families were able to work in ways that meet their needs

The poll also asked if councils believed the reform would lead to a dip in quality in early education, with two thirds saying it would make no difference, 32 per cent unsure and two per cent suggesting quality would be affected.

But Alan Lindsay, assistant director for education at Wigan Council, said: “The local authority is confident, based on our local information and the DfE’s predicted number of eligible children, that we have sufficient places for all parents who meet the eligible criteria from September 2017.

“Being a pilot authority has enabled us to work with the childcare sector to develop flexible ways of meeting parental demand. For example parents have accessed free childcare before, during and after school hours. The pilot stands us in an excellent position to support both parents and the childcare market moving forwards to full roll-out.

“This initiative for working parents fully supports council work around The Deal for the Future, encouraging growth across the borough, and fully supports our parents to get into work, return to work or extend their working hours, without the concern of a high childcare bill.”

The national survey raised concerns about the future of childminders and nurseries, with 44 per cent of the councils polled saying there could be “reduced financial sustainability” of childcare providers. And there were questions over whether the move would lead to increased costs, outside of the free hours available.

More than half did not know if there would be increased costs for three and four-year-olds, while 63 per cent were unsure if it would lead to higher costs for children aged two and under.

More than a third said it would increase costs for three and four-year-olds and 23 per cent said it would do so for younger children.

The report reads: “There was a lack of certainty about the availability of the 30-hour offer for eligible families. Only a third of local authorities expect there to be enough childcare available for three and four year olds, with just over half not yet knowing whether or not there would be enough.”