Published: 06:00, 24 March 2020
Hundreds of Kent families eligible for free childcare are not taking up the opportunity, a new report has found.
Analysis released by the National Audit Office (NAO) reveals just 64.1% of families on benefits who can sign up are not doing so.
The lowest take-up is in Gravesham where under half (49.2%) of parents access free early education and childcare for youngsters under two-years-old, a whopping 18 points below the national average of 68%.
In Dartford just 55.8% are enrolled which is just below Medway on 59.6%.
Highest take-up is seen in Folkestone and Hythe where almost three quarters of those eligible (72.8%) have taken it up, closely followed by Tonbridge and Malling (72.6%).
The vast difference in Kent (23.8%) is specifically highlighted in the NAO as one of three counties – alongside Lancashire and Essex – which has the highest variation in the country.
"If these entitlements are to help level the playing field, it is essential that more disadvantaged children benefit"
The Free for 2 scheme – which the government refers to as the disadvantage entitlement – provides up to 15 hours of free early years provision for children aged up to two for parents who receive benefits such as Universal Credit, income support and Jobseekers Allowance.
Experts say the take-up is lower in more deprived areas and increases in better off areas.
The report found parents' awareness of the entitlement is "high overall but lower in deprived areas" but some providers putting on additional charges is having a "larger impact on disadvantaged families".
It found some parents were told they need to pay for extra hours above the 15-hour free threshold to ensure their child obtained a place.
Government funding does not cover meals, additional activities and other items beyond the base rate of providing 15 hours of free care.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “Families with young children across the country are benefiting from their entitlement to free early education and childcare places, which aim to prepare children for school and improve their life chances.
“However, if these entitlements are to help level the playing field, it is essential that more disadvantaged children benefit from high-quality childcare. DfE should do more to ensure that all disadvantaged families are aware of the free childcare on offer and are able to access it.”
The NAO is calling on the government to improve its understanding to increase take-up among disadvantaged families and assess how "additional charges are a barrier".
It also says the Department for Education (DfE) must investigate why there are geographic variations such as the one seen in Kent.
The report also stated education chiefs had "focused efforts on improving take-up among disadvantaged families, but does not know what works locally".
Ian Sutherland, director of people, children and adults’ Services at Medway Council, said: “Medway’s children and young people are at the heart of everything we do and we are committed to helping them have the best start in life so they can thrive, be healthy and learn well.
“We understand that placing a child into early education can be daunting for some parents and we offer support to families to alleviate any concerns they may have about their children going into childcare and to promote the positive impact it has on helping to prepare children for school.
“Our Family Information Service supports families to use their entitlement to free early education and helps them find a childcare provider which meets their individual needs. We have introduced a parent portal to streamline the application process for finding an early education place.
“We have an outreach officer who works closely with the job centre to directly support families. The officer also carries out targeted outreach work across Medway to encourage families to use their entitlement.”
"We understand that placing a child into early education can be daunting for some parents and we offer support"
The council says it is aware of the barriers families face in signing up for early education.
The government spends £3.5 billion a year on three tiers of support known as entitlements. This represents an increase in real terms of 24% due to help provided for eligible working parents with children aged three and four.
But the NAO found the funding for disadvantaged families with two-year-olds and the middle tier for three and four-year-olds had dropped by 4%.
The research from the NAO looks at figures from the DfE for each district and borough in the county as well as the Medway unitary authority.
The review says access to "high-quality early education and childcare can support children’s development and improve their outcomes" and help improve social mobility for youngsters.
More by this authorMatt Leclere