Schools encouraged to take 2-year-olds to tackle childcare crisis
By Steven Swinford, Senior Political Correspondent 03 Feb 2014
Schools will be encouraged to take children as young as two to help solve the country’s child care crisis.
Liz Truss, the education minister, is writing to every council in England to suggest that school nurseries should extend their opening hours to allow parents to leave toddlers during the working day.
The Government is also introducing legislation to reduce red tape and make it easier for schools to open their doors to two-year-olds.
Ministers believe that opening up the system will help provide tens of thousands more child care places, which are urgently needed in many areas.
It will also enable mothers to go back into part-time work and help prevent children from disadvantaged backgrounds from slipping behind.
The move is the latest attempt by the Government to increase access to child care after a Conservative initiative to allow nannies to look after more children was blocked by the Liberal Democrats.
Mrs Truss told The Telegraph: “Schools have excellent facilities. It is age appropriate, so what you are doing with two-year-olds in terms of singing, reading stories, playing with paint is very different from what you do with a seven-year-old.
“If you have a really high quality school nursery, children who are behind can catch up with their peers by the time they start school.”
By the end of this year, 40 per cent of all two-year-olds — equivalent to 130,000 children from poorer backgrounds — will be entitled to 15 hours of free care a week. Middle-class parents will have to pay for the service.
At present, only a relatively small number of school nurseries offer care to children under three.
Mrs Truss said they were being deterred by the “barrier” of red tape which requires existing school nurseries to register with Ofsted before taking in two-year-olds. The Government will legislate to remove the barrier in September.
Ministers are also concerned that many school nurseries are only open from 9am until 3pm. Mrs Truss wants them to help parents by mirroring the working day.
“Many parents would prefer longer days rather than five short bursts during the week. If you’re working part-time, you could have two sessions of seven and a half hours, or three sessions of five hours. It gives much more flexibility,” she said.
Nursery fees have risen by 30 per cent in the past three years, almost five times faster than wages. The average cost of a nursery place for a child aged two or over for 25 hours a week is currently 107 pounds, up from 82 pounds in 2010.
The Government has given 49 primary schools a grant of up to 1,000 pounds each to help establish the best approach to educating and caring for two-year-olds.
The schools, from a variety of urban and rural settings, will identify good practice, share their findings and encourage more schools to follow suit. The money will pay for new buildings, resources, and staff training.
The Department for Education said: “The evidence shows that starting younger, with high quality teacher-led provision, can have a real and lasting impact on children’s development and life chances, particularly for those from the most disadvantaged families.”
However, the Pre-school Learning Alliance said that the funding could have been better spent on existing early years settings. Neil Leitch, the group’s chief executive, criticised the Government recently for pursuing a policy of “early schoolification” not appropriate for two-year-olds.
Laura Perrins, a stay-at-home mother who confronted Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, during a radio phone-in last year, said a full day in nursery was too long for a two-year-old child. “There is no evidence to say that this is going to benefit two-year-olds. It’s not going to improve cognitive outcomes for them, but it probably will have an emotional impact,” she said.
“It is putting more pressure to get mums back to work, probably too soon for them or their children. The Government is again ignoring the relationship that mothers have with very young children.”