John Fowler updates on progress on the Education and Adoption Bill, the major piece of education legislation in this session of Parliament, and also the Childcare Bill which will affect primary schools.
Education and Adoption Bill
The Education and Adoption Bill left the House of Commons in September unscathed by either a Government or Opposition amendment. The Bill was given a Second Reading in the Lords on 20 October, and had its Committee Stage during the first half of November. Full details of the Bill can be found in Education Now 46 (September 2015).
Government Schools Minister Lord Nash in introducing the Bill in the Upper Chamber stated that the Bill: “delivers on the Government’s manifesto and Queen’s speech commitments to ensure that all children receive an excellent education, by turning or failing schools into sponsored academies at introducing new powers to ensure that coasting schools are challenged and supported to improve sufficiently”.
In response, the opposition front bench speaker, Lord Watson, asked that schools “be given the opportunity and time to improve with appropriate support” before central government action is taken to turn them into sponsored academies. He concluded that the “Bill is a backward step for democracy in education and in society as a whole”.
The Childcare Bill reached the Commons on 27 October after a near complete rewrite due to the government amendments and defeats in the Lords. The purpose of the Bill is to support “hard-working” families with the costs of childcare.
What the Bill does
The main objective of the Bill is to deliver the Government’s election manifesto commitment of giving families where all parents are working an entitlement to 30 hours a week of free childcare for their 3- and 4-year-olds for 38 weeks of the year (equivalent to the school year). The Bill makes the Secretary of State responsible for delivering the entitlement.
A subsidiary, and uncontroversial, purpose of the Bill is to make local authorities (LAs) more proactive in publishing information about the provision of childcare in their areas, and also other services or facilities which might be of benefit to parents or prospective parents, or children or young persons in their area. The childcare in this extended LA duty covers not just provision for children under five, but also before and after school care for children up to the age of 14.
Why should schools be interested?
Nearly all primary schools will have children in their reception and nursery classes covered by the existing “free” early years guarantee of 15 hours a week for 38 weeks a year. This is available to all 3- and 4-year-olds and some 2-year-olds irrespective of whether their parents are working or not. (For 2-year-olds, it is tied to parental income through currently mirroring the free schools meals entitlement.)
As part of the Government’s commitment to working families, and to “making work pay”, the extension of the childcare offer from the current 15 to 30 hours a week will only be available for parents who are in work. Other parts of the Government’s “making work pay” package include raising significantly the minimum wage and reducing the availability of the child tax credit.
Four-year-olds in reception classes are likely to be in full-time education. One issue for schools is that the current school week may be less than 30 hours inclusive of the lunchtime break. There will be no requirement on schools to make their provision up to the 30 hours, but obviously this may be an issue for some schools. For 3 and 4-year-olds not in the reception class who currently attend for a morning or afternoon session for the free 15 hours of provision, managing the additional 15 hours a week will be more problematic. Although the Government, and their delivery agent (local government), want schools to extend their provision, schools will not be under a duty to do so.
What is a working parent?
A working parent will be defined in regulations, and not the Bill. The Government has set out in Childcare Bill: Policy Statement (October 2015) that to receive the additional 15 hours childcare: “Both parents are working or one parent working in lone parent families … This will be defined as earning the equivalent of 8 hours per week on National Minimum Wage and this can include self-employment.”
Parents will also be entitled, where one or both are away from the workplace due, maternity and paternity leave, substantial other caring responsibilities, parental disablement, etc. There will also be a short period of grace when parents’ employment circumstances change. All schools (and childcare providers in general) will be responsible for checking whether parents are eligible but a third party, likely to be the LA, will have access to HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC) and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data to confirm eligibility.
Government changes to the Bill
Amendments brought forward by the Government were extensive. Of note are the following.
Secondary legislation. The Bill makes extensive use of secondary legislation (Regulations made by statutory instruments). Government amendments have narrowed the scope of these regulating making powers making them more specific to the Government’s stated objective for the Bill.
Local authority role. The Bill now makes the LA the principal means by which the Secretary of State will discharge her duty to secure 30 hours of free childcare for working parents.
Parental appeal. An appeal mechanism is established for parents who are denied the additional 15 hours a week childcare.
Government defeats to the Bill
The Government was defeated three times in the Lords. The Government had not announced by the end of October whether it will use its Commons majority to overturn these defeats.
Funding. The Bill requires the Government to establish an independent funding review, and put in place a “sustainable funding solution” before the 30 hour offer is implemented. This meets concerns that many childcare providers are already “cross-subsidising” their free entitlement provision from the fees received for other provision.
Flexibility. Against the Government’s wishes, the Bill was amended to require childcare provision to be available for parents who work outside the 9 am to 5 pm period on Monday to Friday, and that provision is available in the school holidays
Regulations. As much of the detail of the new arrangements will be in regulations, the Bill now enables much greater scrutiny of the regulations than originally proposed by the Government.
It is expected that the Bill will complete its Commons stages by the end of calendar year 2015. The Government is planning a pilot from Aautumn 2016, with full implementation from autumn 2017.