Childcare providers in England say the childcare system is at “breaking point” as plans to double free provision for three and four-year-olds in England are pushed forward. The current allowance of 15 hours a week for three and four-year-olds will now be doubled to 30 for working parents.
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.
Authorities and those in the childcare industry highlighted this lack of funding during the Conservatives previous five years in government to no avail. However, after having their headline manifesto pledge widely attacked, Employment Minister Priti Patel, told the BBC that the government has finally accepted that “funding rates need to increase”.
The alliance said many groups were already having to charge parents extra for hours of childcare not included in the scheme to make ends meet, and would struggle to deal with the changes. Chief executive Neil Leitch said:
I think this is crunch time, while we of course welcome the drive to improve the availability of childcare in this country, these figures clearly show the government’s plan to extend funded childcare hours simply cannot work without a substantial increase in sector funding.
The so-called ‘free’ childcare scheme is nothing of the sort. For years now, the initiative has been subsidised by providers and parents because of a lack of adequate government funding.
Following the announcement, the prime minister visited Buttercups Nursery in Teddington, south-west London. Kate Thomas, whose three-year-old daughter attends the nursery, said it was worrying that any shortfall in funding for the extra hours might be passed on to parents. She said:
Most mothers I know don’t work full time and if they are lucky they will have a job that covers their childcare and have a bit extra, but if that bit extra then ends up being what funds the extra cost of the nursery, what is the point of working?
The National Day Nurseries Association also said its members were “struggling with current levels of investment”. Chief executive Purnima Tanuku said “funding is critical and it’s vital that the increase pledged by the government is meaningful”.
Jill Rutter, from the Family and Childcare Trust, which campaigns for quality childcare that is affordable and accessible, said there was “no proper funding formula”. Adding, “the money local authorities get from government to pass on to providers is very varied”.
Nurseries have been making up the shortfall in funding from parents, but as extra hourly fees are not legal, nurseries have worked out ways to get round this. The most common technique is requiring parents to take more than the total number of free hours and charging a set fee for the extra time. This obviously is counter-productive to the free childcare policies.
The government has also completely neglected children’s centres, as leading children’s charity Barnando’s pointed out: “yes, child care is important to working families but this must be provided in addition to, not in place of, other vital services.”