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BLOG: Why 30 hours free childcare isn’t really ‘free’

Paloma Kubiak
Written By:
Paloma Kubiak

As my son turned three, I was chuffed as it meant we could save over £600 a month in nursery fees. But the invoices continue to arrive, despite us being eligible for 30 hours ‘free’ childcare.

In England, all three and four-year-old’s are entitled to 15 hours free childcare a week.

However, to qualify for 30 hours, each parent must work and earn a weekly minimum wage, and less than £100,000 a year. This includes self-employed parents.

After receiving financial help through the government funded tax-free childcare scheme, we were now eligible for 30 hours free childcare, which saves families over £6,000 a year per child. Hurrah!

I thought I’d ‘planned’ things very well. My son was born in December, so he would come under the scheme from the new term in January.

This appeared to be a seamless transition from paying over £600 a month to zero after completing the online forms and passing on the special code to the managers. This is because my son is enrolled on a part-time basis – 25 hours per week so nursery childcare would now be free. Though for many full-time working parents, the 30 hours free childcare will at least help lower the costs.

But I received an email with the subject “additional services and consumables charge”. This couldn’t be good.

We’d need to pay £50 a month for my son’s food. The nursery explained the funding should only be used to cover the cost of early years education. Food, drink and other associated provisions are not covered by the government and the cost has to be met by parents or carers.

Fair enough I thought, it’s £50 a month which would actually cost us less via our tax-free childcare account. This is because for every £8 you pay into the account, the government adds an extra £2. This means you could get an extra £2,000 per child per year (more for disabled children).

They also said funded hours do not cover term holidays so any childcare required would need to be booked in advance. Hold on a second…in my ‘welcome to 30 hours free childcare’ letter, it said we were eligible for 30 hours per week of free childcare over 38 weeks of the year. But it also noted: “It’s possible to stretch your entitlement by taking fewer hours over more weeks of the year”.

As my son only required 25 hours of nursery childcare a week, surely we could tally up the five unused hours each week to help cover the cost of sending him in during half-term holidays?

When I queried it with the nursery, they said they do not offer “stretched funding”. Another dead end and to my horror, it would mean covering the other 12 term holiday weeks at £150 each. Ouch. But again, this could be lessened by using our tax-free childcare account.

Extra costs

Looking at the government website on help with childcare costs, it does state “you may have to pay for extra costs like meals, nappies or trips”. But my son doesn’t wear nappies, he has one light meal at nursery and as he only attends afternoon sessions, trips aren’t of concern to us as they usually take place in the morning.

In statutory guidance issued to local authorities on how nurseries and childminders should deliver entitlement, it stated that local authorities should “Ensure that providers are aware that they can charge for meals and snacks as part of a free entitlement place and that they can also charge for consumables such as nappies or sun cream, and for services such as trips and specialist tuition.

“Parents can therefore be expected to pay for these, although these charges must be voluntary for the parent. Where parents are unable or unwilling to pay for meals and consumables, providers who choose to offer the free entitlements are responsible for setting their own policy on how to respond, with options including allowing parents to supply their own meals or nappies, or waiving or reducing the cost of meals and snacks. Local authorities should ensure that providers are mindful of the impact of additional charges on the most disadvantaged parents.”

Latest statistics reveal that in 2021, 328,700 children had a government-funded early education entitlement place for 30 hours. I wonder how many of these families were also unaware of the additional costs associated with the funded scheme. And how many may struggle given the cost of living crisis we’re now experiencing.

Lack of funding in childcare provision

For Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, it all comes down to a lack of funding for the scheme with costs ultimately pushed onto parents.

He said: “For many years now, government funding for the so-called ‘free childcare’ offers has fallen well short of the cost of delivering these places. As a result, nurseries, pre-schools and childminders have had no option but to increase fees and charge for ‘extras’ – such as nappies, lunches and trips – to try and stay afloat.

“We know that lots of families are already struggling with the current cost-of-living crisis, and rising childcare costs are only likely to add to this strain. But with early years settings also facing many of the same pressures, such as spiralling inflation and soaring energy prices, alongside other costs such as huge rises in the national minimum and living wages and the upcoming national insurance hike, without urgent government action, the situation will only worsen.

“A recent investigation conducted by the Alliance revealed that government is not only well aware that it is underfunding the 15- and 30-hour offers, but also that doing so is pushing up childcare costs for parents.

“Both families and providers deserve far more support than the government has given to date. If ministers truly value access to quality, affordable care and education, they will invest what’s needed to ensure providers are able to deliver it.”