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Free childcare expansion ‘chaos’ for parents

Free childcare expansion ‘chaos’ for parents
Paloma Kubiak
Written By:
Paloma Kubiak

Thousands of parents have reported problems in obtaining a code for the expanded childcare scheme, while others claim their early years setting won’t accept them.

At the start of the year, eligible working parents of two-year-old children were encouraged to register for 15 hours of free childcare per week as part of the expanded scheme from April 2024.

However, a survey of parents by charity Pregnant Then Screwed suggests “the execution of the scheme has left parents confused and frustrated with many still unsure if they can access it”.

It revealed just one in 10 (11%) were able to obtain a code, while some complained they have repeatedly tried to access their code, but are going round and round in circles where they end up back at the log-in page.

For 17%, they said they simply don’t understand how it works and when calling the helpline, as well as being on hold for hours at a time, some claim they received incorrect advice.

‘I was on hold for hours’

Danielle Long, a mum from Norwich, said: “The first time I called, I was on hold for four hours, only to be hung up on. I called the following day and waited another three hours. I can’t express my frustration at the usability of this system – people who work, who have young kids and need childcare don’t have that sort of time.’’

Meanwhile, of the 6,058 parents polled, only 55% have found a childcare setting that will accept the new free hours for two-year-olds.

Georgina, a mother of three from Northamptonshire, said: “On 2 January, my nursery dropped the bombshell that they ‘cannot afford to continually take a hit on the deficit between our daily rate and what we are receiving from the Government – even with charging parents a consumable (top-up).’

“So, therefore they are opting out of the 15/30 hour Government funding from April 2024. This means by May, my monthly outgoing on childcare alone will be close to £2,000 pcm! For context, our mortgage is £1,300 pcm (up from £995 pcm last year).

“I just do not know how or if we can afford this and it adds insult to injury that there is funding we’re entitled to yet can’t utilise due to not enough provision in the area we live.”

Childcare code deadline

Elsewhere, a third of parents (34%) said their preferred provider is currently unable to confirm whether they will accept the codes, while 25% said their provider has given them a deadline to be able to use the code. For half, they said the deadline given is ahead of when they’ll actually receive their code.

This may be because some parents are told they can’t apply for a code until their ‘reconfirmation window’ in their Government childcare account. Here, parents claimed this won’t happen until late March, just days before the scheme is due to start on 1 April. A small number say their reconfirmation window opens in April which is after the scheme starts.

The Department for Education has made it clear there should not be any deadlines before 31 March, adding additional administrative pressure on providers to process all codes before term starts on 1 April, the charity warned.

Pregnant Then Screwed also reported that some childcare settings are removing the Government scheme for three and four-year-olds as well as not enrolling in the new two-year-old funding scheme “due to continued underfunding from the Government”.

‘Inundated with messages from frantic parents’

Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said: ‘’We have been inundated with messages from frantic parents who don’t understand the system, or expect to receive their code too late. Meanwhile, many providers haven’t been given the information they need from their local authority to decipher what their income will be from April onwards. Parents can’t access their codes, providers can’t do their financial forecasting – it’s chaos.”

Brearley added: “Parents struggling to understand the system or trying to secure their code are told to call the childcare services helpline, but parents we have spoken to complain of being on call waiting for very long periods, with many saying the line then cuts out. Our benefit helpline isn’t able to keep up with demand, and we’re being flooded with messages. We’ve become a childcare helpline for the government overnight.”

A government spokesperson said: “The childcare application system is working as intended, with thousands of parents applying for and receiving codes to access their new free childcare entitlements every day.

“We are working to ensure all parents can access their codes in time to use the new entitlements in April and confirm childcare places as soon as possible.”