Merthyr Council approves Flying Start free childcare programme

By Anthony Lewis

Free childcare will soon be available for nearly 90 more two to three year olds in Merthyr Tydfil.

At full council on Wednesday, January 11, councillors approved an expansion to the Welsh Government’s Flying Start programme in the county borough.

It will provide an additional 88 children aged 2-3 with access to free childcare each year.

But the report said that these children and their families will not benefit from the full Flying Start programme due to the approach taken by Welsh Government to this phase of the expansion.

The report said there is a significant ‘offer’ change from what people would know as Flying Start as this expansion will only provide access for 2-3 year
olds to the childcare element of the programme.

When the full expansion has taken place, this will mean there will be equity in
access to childcare for all families but there will not be equity in the ability to
access the remaining three main elements of the Flying Start offer, which are enhanced health visiting, parenting and early language development or other elements like midwifery, family support or speech and language therapists, as these will only be available to those areas designated as Flying Start before April 2023.

There was a phase one expansion of the Flying Start programme which came into effect for families from September 2022 and now Welsh Government have announced a further expansion (phase two) of the programme which is
planned to come into effect for families from April 2023.

The report said that Welsh Government have been very clear that whilst they recognise that this approach to only expanding the childcare is not ideal their long term vision and goal is to eventually have the full Flying Start offer available to all families.

In June 2022, councillors approved the expansion of the Flying Start
Programme into what is known as “Park 3” Lower Super Output Area and increased outreach capacity by 15 in line with the Welsh Government allocation.

This expansion enabled full access to the Flying Start programme, although investment was only made in two areas of the programme, childcare and health visiting.

A Lower Super Output Area (LSOA) is a geographic area smaller than a council ward with an average population of around 1,500 people and an average of 650 households.

A total of 1,287 children can access the Flying Start programme aged 0-4 in Merthyr Tydfil.

The report said the outreach capacity that has been made available comes from a falling birth rate and enables families in non-Flying Start areas to access the programme based upon needs.

The areas being included in the latest expansion

The report said that the data clearly identifies the most income deprived area that are not currently Flying Start.

It said there is also accessible childcare within a reasonable distance, which some parents are already accessing therefore, it is proposed that LSOAs known as Vaynor 1, Treharris 2, Treharris 4, Plymouth 3, Merthyr Vale 3, Plymouth 2 and Penydarren 4 all become eligible Flying Start postcodes.

It is proposed that Town 2 also be included in this expansion due to the
significantly higher than average number of children experiencing income deprivation in this Lower Super Output Area (LSOA).

In Vaynor 1, no childcare is available but evidence showed families are already accessing pre-school provision at Ysgol y Graig Primary.

In Treharris 2, there is no childcare available in LSOA but there is availability in Treharris 4 with three providers although there are concerns over the potential 15 minute walk.

In Plymouth 3 there is availability with two providers in the integrated children’s centre and in Merthyr Vale 3 there is availability in childcare provision within Trinity Child and Family Centre.

In Plymouth 2, there’s availability in childcare provision within TEDS Pre-school, Troedyrhiw and and integrated children’s centre providers.

In Penydarren 4 there is availability in childcare provision within Plant Hapus pre school and in Town 2 there’s availability in childcare provision in Pilli Pala Day Nursery which is bilingual.

By September 2024 this would provide an additional 90 children with access to funded childcare, which is slightly above the Welsh Government figure, however this can be managed through the number of children already engaged.

How the areas were decided

The council report said that the phase one expansion showed that, based on population level data alone, the LSOAs that should be considered in priority order, for expansion in phase two were: an area of the Vaynor ward, two areas of the Treharris ward, an area of the Plymouth ward and an area of the Town ward due to the percentage and number of children living in income deprived households.

But the report added that this data and the population numbers it includes is based upon 2016/17 data and concerns have been raised with Welsh Government about this.

The 2020 mid year population estimates have been used and a full analysis has been done of the 2019 Welsh Index Multiple Deprivation (WIMD) ranking for each area that’s not currently not Flying Start.

The WIMD ranking is based upon eight factors to give an overall picture of deprivation, which is why Welsh Government focus is on the percentage of children experiencing income deprivation.

To address the “historical data”, more work has been done to analyse
both the database held by the council’s education department and the current case loads of health visitors

The report said the department needs to identify children within a specific age band, who will become eligible for childcare from the summer term 2023 (April) through to leaving childcare provision in the summer of 2024.

In line with Welsh Government requirements around income deprivation these areas have been ranked and the department has worked through the highest need areas and identified whether there is capacity in the childcare sector to meet the needs of these families, the report said.

Where no provision exists, childcare services in neighbouring lower super output areas have been reviewed to understand current use by parents in these geographical areas as some parents are already accessing services.

In some of the lower super output areas it has already been identified that
expanding into these areas will free up space in the outreach capacity with 26 children from these areas being already enrolled into the Flying Start programme.

Welsh language requirements

As part of the expansion Welsh Government are requiring councils to
support its drive to increase the number of Welsh speakers by increasing access to Welsh medium provision.

At this point the language preference of parents in non-Flying Start areas is unknown, however, there is potential to meet the language preference in existing providers through the current Flying Start commissioning
model, however this may not comply with the 15 minute walking distance advised by Welsh Government.

The report said that this approach has been shared with Welsh Government who are content that the council is able to offer parents a Welsh language option, prior to potential increases in dedicated Welsh medium childcare services as part of the continued expansion and the development of capital programmes for new Welsh medium provision to compliment primary school education.

How it will be delivered

To support the future expansion of childcare through the Flying Start Programme Welsh Government are requesting a strategic outline of future capital requirements.

There has been a focus over the last two years on developing provision on school sites or as close to as possible to ensure an alignment for parents accessing the childcare offer, support for a community focused school approach and the development of Welsh language facilities.

The challenge of the current funding window is what can be achieved, in terms of physical building, over the next three year as there is no further commitment from Welsh Government beyond March 2025.

The report also said that in relation to capital development for childcare Welsh Government do not require any match funding from the council, and they are expecting Welsh language services to be prioritised.

The report added that the department will seek to provide Welsh Government with priorities and the longer-term strategic approach so as not to limit any investment from Welsh Government.

Welsh Government has always asked that Flying Start childcare be within 15 minutes pram pushing distance for parents and this will continue to be challenging both for the scale and speed of developments that may be required, the report said.

It added that it is also a requirement of Welsh Government that the development of new provision does not detract from existing providers, which will be challenging when considering the expansion of Welsh language provision.

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