Looking at the benefits and challenges of different models for providing childcare and early education service in children’s centres and extended schools

The provision of childcare and early education lies at the heart of all the initiatives for providing services for children and families to fulfil the aspirations of the Every Child Matters: Change for Children Programme.

The target of developing 3,500 children’s centres by 2010 is well under way, with 1,000 centres already up and running while in the Extended Schools programme half of all primary schools are expected to provide a core offer of extended services, including childcare from 8am to 6pm, by 2008, with all schools expected to do so by 2010.

Long-term sustainability has been the key issue for all providers regardless of whether they are in the public, voluntary or private sectors. These developments have, however, provided opportunities to establish new partnership arrangements to deliver childcare and early education services best suited to the needs of parents and the local community.

In this article we look at some of the benefits and challenges of different working arrangements and identify some of the issues which both commissioners and providers of services should take into account when deciding how to manage and run their provision.

Direct provision
Many of the original Sure Start programmes, which later evolved into the first wave of children’s centres had the facilities and funding to establish their own inhouse childcare and early education provision. The advantages of this approach include:

  • the creation of a unified team sharing the same ethos, vision and values
  • the opportunity to deliver a seamless service to parents, on one site
  • effective information sharing to support children and families
  • involvement of a qualified teacher to oversee planning and delivery of services
  • the potential to subsume some of the costs of the provision within the overall budget of the centre
  • direct responsibility for the performance indicator relating to the level of children’s learning and development as measured by the Foundation Stage Profile
  • sharing of knowledge and skills within the multi-agency children’s centre team
  • opportunities for mentoring and disseminating good practice to other early years providers within the children’s centre programme.

The disadvantages of directly providing childcare and early education services include the:

  • need to set aside appropriate space, indoors and out of doors
  • costs associated with staff employment and training, including the cost of employing a qualified teacher
  • difficulties associated with appointing suitably qualified and experienced staff
  • costs of maintaining any subsidy needed to bridge the gap between the fees parents can afford to pay and the real running costs of the facility.

Contracting out
A large number of Extended Schools projects and children’s centres that have come online more recently have entered into a range of different arrangements to provide the early years services element of their core offer. In some instances private or voluntary sector providers provide these services on site; in others, the services are available off-site through signposting a ‘preferred provider’.

The advantages of such an arrangement can be considered from the point of view of both the organisation commissioning the services and of the private or voluntary sector provider.

For the commissioning agency the benefits of contracting out are:

  • the opportunity to build up partnerships with existing providers in the local community
  • the absence of direct responsibility for the sustainability of the childcare provision (although there will obviously be a need to ensure a service is available for those parents who require it).

The potential disadvantages of choosing this option include the:

  • lack of first-hand influence over the day-to-day running of the childcare provision
  • need to set up effective contractual and monitoring arrangements to ensure continuity and quality of supply.

For the provider of the childcare and early education the benefits of being involved in an arrangement to supply services are the:

  • opportunity to be involved in a programme which increases the accessibility and affordability of early years services for all members of the local community
  • potential to benefit from training, advice and support from multi-agency professionals involved in other aspects of the wider programme
  • advantages of being regarded as a preferred supplier of childcare services
  • a wider customer base to support the sustainability of the provision.

The challenges of such an arrangement include the:

  • need to enter into contractual arrangements to permit the monitoring of service delivery
  • equirement to provide financial information to an external agency
  • obligation to adhere to external regulations in relation to some aspects of staff training and appointments.

Deciding on the right option for your project will depend on your particular circumstances and the availability of opportunities in your local area. The important message for everyone is to take time to be open-minded and explore all the possibilities before coming to a decision. Arrangements which work well and provide long-term stability will guarantee high quality provision for children and their families

Information, advice and support is available from a number of sources including your local authority children’s services team, the Sure Start Unit (www.surestart.gov.uk), the Extended Schools Support Service (www.continyou.org.uk), the National Day Nurseries Association (www.ndna.org.uk), the National Child Minders Association (www.ncma.org.uk), the Pre-School Learning Alliance, (www.pre-school.org.uk) and the 4Children organisation, (www.4children.org.uk).