A proposed change to free childcare entitlement that could see millions of working parents benefiting is being announced as part of a shake-up of early-years education, writes Jeevan Vasagar at the Guardian.
Parents of all UK three- and four-year-olds are currently entitled to 15 hours of free childcare, which they have to use spread across three days. However, the childrenâs minister, Sarah Teather, proposes that the time can be used in two days, enabling many more parents to get a part-time job without paying extra to top up the free childcare.
Around 1.2 million children in England aged three and four – around 95% of the total number in this age group – currently receive free early-years education.
The proposals were outlined in a government-backed review carried out by Dame Clare Tickell, head of Action for Children, published in March.
In an interview with the Guardian, Teather said the changes were aimed at making childcare more flexible.
"The reality of a lot of families' lives, especially if you're trying to get two children out in the morning, is that you may have to begin your childcare arrangements earlier than 8 o'clock. You've got to drop one child in one place, and another child in another, and get yourself to work and be in by half-past eight. It can be tremendously challenging for families."
Anand Shukla, acting chief executive of the Daycare Trust, the national childcare charity, welcomed the change:
"This gives parents a fighting chance of being able to get to work and take their children to the nursery for that seven-and-a-half hours, without having to top up the extra time from their own pay packet."
The government declares that the new core purpose of children's centers is getting children "school ready". It will announce an extra £3m in up to 30 different areas for trials of payment-by-results schemes that reach out to the most disadvantaged families.
Local schemes will be rewarded on how well they narrow the gap between rich and poor in child development, and how well they raise children's attainment and improve family health.
Children from a more deprived background tend to have poorer language skills when they arrive at school, research shows.
"To get a child to be school ready, in a lot of people's minds, is about getting them to sit still in rows and hold a pen, and of course that's not what it's about, it's making sure that children are resilient enough to be able to cope at school.
Saying that community-based models are more likely to respond to parents' needs, the minister is also looking at encouraging parents and charities to become more involved in running Sure Start children's centers.
The department for education is looking at models like the Millmead children's center in Margate, a community mutual where parents are involved in decision-making. The mutual runs a nursery that offers flexible hours.
Jan Collins, chair of the partnership that runs the center, said:
"We don't tell them you have to have a morning or an afternoon – they ask for two hours on Thursday or four hours on Friday. We offer them a service that is very different from most private nurseries, and certainly local authority ones."
The government is also due to debut a reduced curriculum for children under five, reducing the number of goals from 69 to 17. It will focus on personal and social development, physical development and language.