Wednesday 15 March 2023

Will increased free childcare, in the budget, discriminate against autistic, SEN kids like mine?

The government has announced an extension to free childcare but a quick calculation shows me that if my son, David, was in childcare now... he would only get ... three... just three hours childcare a week, a tenth of that of his fellow peers. And all because he has autism.   If free childcare is going to be offered it needs to be offered without discrimination. 

Anthony and David were both officially diagnosed with autism when they were three.  When it became obvious that Anthony needed more support to go to nursery and pre-school, the nursery applied to our council for some special educational needs early years funding. This could pay for an extra member of staff to help him. At the time you could apply for 15 hours worth of funding - which make sense as at the time you could claim 15 hours of free childcare. So, if a child needs constant 1:1 support, then they would need it for 15 hours.

But in the three years between Anthony accessing his 15 hours of free childcare and it being David's turn, local budgets had been cut for special educational needs in early years and the number of children needing this support had increased significantly. The council simply didn't have enough money to offer 15 hours of extra support to kids with special needs so they could get help during their 15 hours in pre-school.  

Despite David's difficulties being far greater than his brother's he could only get the maximum then available - seven hours.   This is because the pot of money to support children like him had not got bigger, but the number of kids who needed it had increased.  

The result was that David only got seven free hours of childcare a week, less than his more able peers. And even then, there was no funding for extra training, so the staff didn't always know how to help him.

David was three years old but he didn't speak a single word and he couldn't communicate at all. Sometimes he lashed out and sometimes other kids got the sharp end of his frustration.

He needed support to interact with anyone. He had sensory needs. He needed help to sit when he should, eat when he should and let's not talk about how late his toilet training was. The nursery simply couldn't take David without a dedicated assistant to care for him.

It seemed backwards. The child who needed the most opportunity to 'catch-up' and be independent, the child who needed the greatest help in socialising, was getting the least time to do both.  In fact it is well documented and professionals all agree the importance of early intervention for kids like our boys.

In the end we were fortunate.  Nearby there was a nursery with a specialist facility that David could do to for his pre-school year.  But the truth is we were very fortunate to find have this - many don't.

What if David was going to use childcare now?  I've had a quick look at some local budgets for early years additional needs funding, looked at the number of kids 9 months - 4 years old, the average number who need more support, and average pay rate for a member of staff and found that in some cases kids with special educational needs in early years child care could potentially only be funded, and so offered three hours a week! 

So while I am pleased that some parents may be accessing further childcare to help them stay in work and their children access education, I fear that families like ours, and children like David may not get the support they deserve.  

Put simply, if free childcare is going to be offered it needs to be offered without discrimination and I'm not sure it's all be thought through for kids like ours. 

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