Over the longer term, it is an initial step towards the party's ultimate goal of extending universal, free childcare to all working parents from the end of parental leave through to starting school. IPPR welcomes the Lib Dem stance on this issue, having argued for a universal offer at age two as part of our proposals for reform across all areas of early years policy.
It is also a natural extension of the current policy at age two. In its time in office, the Coalition has introduced a targeted offer of 15 hours' free childcare for those two-year-olds in the most disadvantaged 20 per cent of families, extended in the current academic year to the poorest 40 per cent. Today's publication by the Department for Education of take-up statistics in the first year of the policy provides some clues as to how it is progressing.
Just under 90,000 children are benefiting, equating to 13 per cent of all two-year-olds. Since the DfE has very little information on how many children are eligible, we are unable to tell precisely what proportion of the target population is enrolled. Still, a rough estimate of around two-thirds suggests that take-up is significantly lower than the 97 per cent of children aged three and four who participate in publicly funded early years provision.
While we are unlikely to see take-up match those levels, at least in the near future, it is also the case that there have been teething problems in the first year of the policy. Local authorities face significant challenges in securing sufficient places and identifying eligible families. These have only intensified with the extension to 40 per cent coverage; last month, Children and Young People Now reported that half of all councils will be unable to provide sufficient places, and many of those secured are in settings yet to undertake the required assessment by Ofsted. In addition, the DfE points to research suggesting that many families consider two-year-olds too young to take up a funded place, and that those lower down the income distribution tend to have lower take-up at all ages.
There are also more encouraging signs. Concerns were raised initially that the introduction of the two-year-old offer may come at the expense of quality, yet 85 per cent of two-year-olds benefiting from the policy were in settings ranked good or outstanding by Ofsted, similar to the level seen under the old system for three- and four-year-olds.
Looking forward, childcare is likely to be a key priority for all political parties at the next election. This is an encouraging sign for families. Beyond universalising the offer at age two, there are many other priorities those drafting manifestos should be looking to move forward. Extending free entitlements to 48 weeks of the year instead of the current 38 is needed to plug the gaps in provision that force families to rely on expensive holiday care. Building a highly qualified workforce in the sector will ensure quality moves in step with expanded provision. And strengthening parental leave entitlements will weave together public support for early years from the first months of a child's life until starting school.
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