The latest on childcare, nursery education and funding from our Parental Choice blogger Sarah-Jane Butler.
Last week the Government announced with great fanfare, pomp and circumstance that they would bring forward plans to double free childcare for working parents – with some families set to benefit as early as next year. The Childcare Bill, introduced on Tuesday, will double free childcare available for all working parents of 3 and 4 year olds to 30 hours a week – available to up to 600,000 families and worth around £5,000 a year – including the £2,500 they can already save from existing free childcare offers. On top of this, the Government also announced that it would look to increase the average childcare funding rates paid to providers (the hourly funding provided for each free place) with the Department for Education set to begin a review before summer.
So all parents out there must be cheering up and down the streets, popping the champagne and thanking the electorate for voting in the Conservatives, right? Mmm, well not quite. As ever, the detail for any proposal concerning childcare is crucial. Whilst it is, no doubt, a step in the right direction, it is not quite the panacea to parents’ childcare financial woes as it would at first seem.
To explain further, let’s look at what nursery education grant funding currently means:
The Basic Facts
All three and four year olds are entitled to 15 hours of free nursery education for 38 weeks of the year. This applies until they reach compulsory school age (the term following their fifth birthday). Free early education places are available at a range of early years settings including nursery schools and classes, children’s centres, day nurseries, play groups and pre-schools and childminders provided that they are registered and inspected by Ofsted. Parents can choose which provider they would like their child to go to, as long as they have places available.
The table below shows when your child will become eligible for their free early learning place.
Your child is currently entitled to a maximum of 5 sessions of 3 hours for 38 weeks of the year. Parents have the right to spread the free entitlement over a whole year in order to help them balance childcare with employment or training and enable them to budget.
The free entitlement of 15 hours a week spread over no fewer than 38 weeks must be free at the point of delivery. Therefore there must be:
- No fees charged for the 15 hours
- No conditions of access – for example, parents should not have to buy more hours or pay for lunch to secure a place
- No other fees in relation to the free entitlement, for example registration or uniform
- No deposit – parents must not have to pay up-front for the free entitlement
- No session longer than ten hours
- No session shorter than 2.5 hours
- Up to 12.5 hours over two days
To be included in the headcount allocation your child needs to be registered with an approved provider of early education on the headcount day which falls within the first three weeks of term. You can use two sessions in one day but there must be a break in between sessions of at least one hour. Sessions could be over five mornings or five afternoons per week or could be two and a half days subject to spaces available. The funding is not paid directly to parents. Your fees can be reduced to reflect the number of free 3 hour sessions you wish your child to receive (up to 5 sessions per week).
Please note that extra time and food are the only things that can be charged for. For example, if your nursery offers dance lessons during your child’s session or often goes on trips that cost extra money then you can decide that you do not want your child to take part and you do not have to pay.
Firstly, the cost of providing childcare within nurseries and with childminders is rising faster than the cost of a family’s average mortgage. Childcare providers cannot provide the quality that our children deserve at the rate the Government is currently providing funding. Many nurseries, particularly private ones, are charging top-up fees over and above the funding allocation. They are not allowed to do this but unless you are prepared to report them to the local authority and fight it, there is not much that you can do. This is not currently policed and the shortage of nursery places in many areas makes it a difficult situation to overcome.
The Pre-School Learning Alliance – which represents 14,000 private, voluntary and independent groups – is warning of “meltdown” in the system because of a shortfall in government funding. It says the grant for the existing 15 hours falls, on average, around 20% short of the true cost of providing care – £3.88 per hour compared with £4.53. It is critical that the Government does carry out its promised review to ensure our children get the quality they deserve or else nursery providers will just not be able to provide the 30 hours offered and will opt out of the system to the detriment of parents.
Secondly, whilst I applaud help for any parent who needs childcare, this proposal only benefits those who have children aged 3-4. What happens before then? I’m not advocating that the tax payer pays for everyone with children, far from it, but I do think the Government and employers have to look seriously at helping those who want to return to work after maternity leave and can’t because either (a) the childcare cost is too high or (b) they can’t get the flexibility of work that would enable them to access that childcare and be able to pay for it. But before I get started on that, perhaps that’s a topic for another blog ….
For now, all I can say is beware of Greeks bearing gifts, that Trojan horse might not be the perfect gift you are expecting.
Author Sarah-Jane Butler is the founder of Parental Choice, a one stop advice and childcare search service for professionals looking for the right childcare to fit their careers.