COUNTING the cost of the free pre-school scheme is easy. Determining its value is much harder. At first glance, the cost of £1.2m. a year seems high, especially when Education explains that, even before the scheme started, only 12% of 3- and 4-year-olds had never attended pre-school before going to primary school. That’s 64 out of 550. If those 64 were the only target it would make the cost per pupil a mighty £20,000 each.
But of course it is about much more. It’s about getting the hundreds of children who are already attending pre-school to go more often. Not just for a few hours here and there when mum and dad cannot get time off work but throughout the year.
So the key statistic is not the 31 families who are still not taking up the offer but the average number of hours each of the 620 children in this cohort attends for.
That will not change overnight. People’s lives cannot turn on a sixpence. There may well be parents considering using the free 15 hours to enable them to return to the workplace or to increase their hours.
Job applications and interviews take time and not every employer is going to want to increase a staff member’s hours on the spot.
The trial nature of the scheme, which guarantees free care for just two terms, may be holding some parents back. Once you commit to extra hours it is not always easy to cancel them.
So there are a lot of factors at play.
What can be judged with confidence is that the care on offer does not target the families most in need.
The cap of £150,000 per family is patent nonsense. By setting the level so high the States is subsidising child care for all but the very wealthy.
But Education, Sport & Culture’s promise to address that issue in September now looks fraught with risk.
Firstly it puts the funding for the whole scheme in jeopardy, because the cut in family allowances cannot be used to pay for a non-universal benefit. Secondly, because evidence of the scheme’s success will be hard to come by over the next nine months and critics of the scheme will point to the obvious high costs not the long-term benefits.