The Truth Behind Those 30 Hours of Free Childcare

Nursery Environments

The Truth Behind Those 30 Hours of Free Childcare

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Childcare and parenting author Sue Cowley is a leading teacher trainer and chair of her local preschool committee. Here she gives her views on the governments plans to increase the number of free childcare hours to 30 a week and what this could mean for nursery settings:

Early education is a perennial hot topic, because it is widely acknowledged that what happens during the early years is vital for children’s life chances, and for their later educational success. Access to affordable childcare is also crucial for those parents who need or want to go back to work while their children are still young. It is in the early years that a child learns language, develops key physical skills and builds psychological and emotional resilience. The Foundation Stage is the time when the foundations are being laid for all the learning that a child will do as he or she grows up. The first five years are a critical phase.

From the early 1990s, there was an ongoing rise in the demand for childcare in the UK. This was prompted in part by an increase in the number of women going back to work while their children were young. In 1998 the New Labour government launched the first National Childcare Strategy, aiming to increase the number of parents in employment, to reduce inequality and to improve child development. The Labour government also began the Sure Start initiative, designed to impact on a child’s life chances from the earliest age. As we moved into the 21st Century, it seemed that politicians had finally accepted the importance of high quality early years provision.

To put it in plain terms: if the money settings receive from fees and from government funding is not equal to their outgoings, then settings will close.

But still childcare policy in England is confused and fragmented – there is not enough joined up thinking to create a coherent offer, nor enough funding to make the policy work well. The Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition increased the amount of free childcare hours that parents could access, and brought in funding for two year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds. However, this was done alongside the largescale closure of Sure Start Centres, which supported families of young children, especially in deprived areas. At the preschool I help to run, the gradual increase in the amount of funded time has allowed us to extend our opening hours. It has put us on a far surer footing than previously – we no longer have to rely on fees and fundraising to survive. But the funding rate has remained stagnant for far too long, while our costs keep rising. And the government’s latest policy, that offers 30 hours free childcare to some working parents, could prove a step too far.

childcare hours

There are two key problems with the policy of 30 hours that must be addressed, if the Government is to have any hope of providing the number of childcare places that parents require. These issues are supply and sustainability. In a market, supply of a product or service generally increases in response to demand. Because demand for childcare has historically been in places where parents went out to work, and could afford to pay childcare fees, the supply that has developed is patchy. In some areas there are lots of private, voluntary and independent (PVI) settings; in other areas state run nurseries and infant schools provide the majority of early years care. Schools still only make up a tiny proportion of the early years sector, though – the vast majority of babies and young children are in PVI settings.

As more children have gained access to funding for early education, including 2 year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds, the demand for nursery spaces has increased. But because childcare provision is not directly controlled by central government, it has no mechanism for making sure that this happens in the places where it is most needed. Many full daycare settings do not have the space to offer more places – there are already waiting lists in areas where childcare is in high demand. With the 30 hours policy doubling the amount of free childcare that working parents can access, this will put even more pressure on supply. While there may be spaces available, the spaces are not necessarily in the locations where they are needed.


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Ironically, in places where there is less demand for full time childcare, the increase to 30 hours might be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and that causes settings to close. Many voluntary run settings like the one I run are open for less than 30 hours a week, because most parents in our area only work part time, and do not want than 15 or 20 hours childcare. If we were to open for 30 hours, this would increase our running costs, but it is unlikely to increase the number of children who attend our setting. One solution would be for settings like ours to work in partnership with childminders, to offer the full 30 hours. Unfortunately for the Government, there has been a massive decrease in the number of registered childminders over the past five years.

The parents of babies and children who have not yet qualified for nursery funding are effectively subsidising the children who receive ‘free childcare’

The second key issue, sustainability, is a big worry for settings. To put it in plain terms: if the money settings receive from fees and from government funding is not equal to their outgoings, then settings will close. Funding has not increased for a number of years now, while the cost of running a setting has continued to rise. Rent, utilities, resources, staffing – there have been cost pressures in all of these areas. With the introduction of the Living Wage, and the new Automatic Enrolment Pension scheme, costs are rising even further. Government funding simply does not cover the cost of the children it is meant to pay for. Because of this, settings have had no option but to increase the fees they charge to fee-paying parents. The parents of babies and children who have not yet qualified for nursery funding are effectively subsidising the children who receive ‘free childcare’. This is the reality behind the stories of ‘expensive childcare’ that regularly appear in the media.

30 hours free childcare

In its recent review of childcare costs, the Government talked about how providers should utilise statutory ratios to make settings more sustainable. What this translates to is settings using the statutory ratio of one adult to thirteen three and four year olds, rather than a higher number of adults to children. At many settings, providers refuse to use the Government’s statutory ratios. We do not feel that it is possible to provide high quality childcare with such high numbers of children to adults. Because we are independent from Government, we do not have to use their statutory ratios. We choose to prioritise parental views about what is best for their children, over Government views on how we could lower our prices.

You simply cannot have ‘champagne childcare’, if you are only willing to offer ‘lemonade funding’.

Although the Government has promised an increase in the hourly rate for the 30 hours offer, the details of what this will actually look like on the ground are sketchy. At present, there is a pilot of the 30 hours offer under way. Recently, though, providers have pulled out of the pilot in York, saying it was not sufficiently funded, and that it is therefore not sustainable. If all providers in an area refuse to participate and to offer 30 funded hours, this would make the policy completely unworkable. What, then, is the answer to a policy that is currently in crisis? First and foremost, it is vital that the DfE listens to providers, and that they give us information in sufficient time so that we can react to changes. Settings need to know right now, how the promised funding increase will translate to an hourly funded rate. The DfE needs to look at how it can encourage childminders back into the system, so that parents have flexible ways to access their 30 hours entitlement. And they need to accept that you simply cannot have ‘champagne childcare’, if you are only willing to offer ‘lemonade funding’.

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6 Comments

  1. Tracy

    September 5, 2017 at 3:11 pm

    i am a registered childminder offering the 30 hrs and working in partnership with nurseries to offer the funded uptake. However unlike student finance and tax credits relatives are not allowed to claim this funding for children they are childminding for. therfore unless my duaghter takes her child to a different setting she can not have the continuety of care by staying with my self… there should be a more level playing feild. I agree with your comments but the system has other flaws that also need looking at as the points I have covered demonstrate it is not fair to all.

    I have staff working with me as well so still have all the same issues as nursery but my ratios are smaller.

  2. Jo Morris

    May 23, 2016 at 10:05 pm

    This is absolutely spot on Sue! Superbly written! I’ve shared it on our Facebook group ‘Champagne Nurseries, Lemonade Funding’ we are campaigning for a fairer funding system for all providers, you are more than welcome to join the page, you would be an asset to the campaign!

  3. Sarah Neville

    May 22, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    Hi Sue the reasons that childminders are leaving the profession are complex and many … there will always be natural wastage – childminders who leave because they are retiring or have taken the opportunity to re-train and move into another profession.

    Similarly, there will always be those childminders who find it is not for them – their families are unsupportive or they want their homes back. However, there are more worrying reasons why thousands more are leaving the profession…

    We asked on the Independent Childminders Facebook group and the Childminding Forum and the following reasons were given –
    – Paperwork which often takes over evenings and weekends – usually unnecessary and overburdonsome paperwork sadly
    – Loneliness – especially now LA support has been removed
    – Ofsted inconsistencies
    – Lack of free Local Authority support
    – Lack of free local training
    – The requirement to be a teacher – when often earning significantly less than minimum wage
    – Funded hours which do not cover hourly rate and only pay term time – for example, Cheshire east pay £1 less per hour than my hourly rate
    – Malicious complaints – often from non-paying parents – we are very vulnerable because we work on our own
    – Being perceived as the second class childcare solution – the babysitter – by many parents, the media and other professionals such as health visitors and some nursery staff.
    – Lack of support from other providers who refuse to work with us – and then we are downgraded by Ofsted for not trying hard enough to engage them!
    – Being battered by all the different Govt departments – HMRC are withdrawing Working Tax Credits from thousands of childminders, the Information Commissioners Office expect us to pay for nothing, Ofsted are reviewing their fees and we expect them to increase, DfE change documents without letting us know…

    A lot of it started with Ms Truss and her agencies – thousands left as a result of that one! Sadly they are still not listening and 4Children have done another big agency push recently.

    The cost of setting up as a childminder is increasing and there are less and less Local Authority courses available. This means that less new childminders are joining the profession. We recognise this is a deliberate Government ploy to register new childminders through agencies which established childminders have already said are not needed – and are definitely not affordable.

    As you can see there are a lot of reasons! These are probably just the main ones – I am sure there are others. We are a much beligured profession – personally I live and breathe childminding and cannot imagine doing anything else – but I do feel we have taken enough and they need to support us while we regroup!

    Sarah Neville (childminder)

  4. Belinda

    May 21, 2016 at 3:03 pm

    I think constant changes in legislation has frightened off people from working alone, there is more perceived risk, there is a fear of Ofsted, and so on. i have been registered for 17 years, before that I was a teacher, so I remember inspections then . . . .
    Working in partnership is important, but sometimes it is difficult. Last year was great because I had two children in different pre=schools that I worked really closely with, I found this really beneficial for the children, and an eye opener for me too. Both children had been with me since they were babies, and were with me full time, apart from their pre-school hours, good positive partnerships!!

  5. Sue Cowley

    May 20, 2016 at 11:38 am

    Thanks for your detailed comment Belinda, it’s really helpful to hear a childminder’s perspective on this. I know exactly what you mean about the terrible funding and it is even harder for childminders than for settings like ours to make ends meet when the rate does not even cover our costs. I can see exactly what you mean about it needing to be a proper partnership between the settings to make this work. I would have loved to have used a child minder alongside preschool when my children were small – maybe on a two day/three day split. However, there are simply no childminders in our area, which is such a shame. Do you have any thoughts on why there has been such a huge drop in the numbers of people doing childminding?

  6. Belinda

    May 18, 2016 at 12:34 pm

    Thank you for your blog, which I found both interesting and informative. I am a qualified teacher, but working as a registered childminder at present. I understand and agree with much of what you say, but feel I would like to add my perspective as a registered childminder.
    Currently I offer funded hours for 2, 3 and 4 year olds. My local authority rate is 60p and hour less than my hourly rate, so for every hour children access the funding, I lose 60p per child, £9 per week and £351 a year. Although this may be similar to preschools and nurseries, the difference is that our ratios are smaller, normally 3 under fives at one time, so we are highly unlikely to recoup our losses through other children. I currently have 4 under 5’s, two of them access funding. The margins are very small.
    You also mention in your Blog, that childminders could fill in the gaps that other setting are unable to fill, especially for settings that are open for less than 30 hours a week. If this would work as a true partnership, and the parents’ choices were being valued, fair enough, but I don’t think many childminders would be happy about being the ‘beginning and end of the day’ childcare for under fives, especially if they were also being expected to do this on the funded rate. We would have other children who would be with us all day, and, as I have already mentioned, can only have 3 under fives at one time. No0t many people would keep an under five space free for a child to arrive at, say 2.30pm.
    Many parents chose childminders because they value the smaller ratios and home based environment for their smallest children, and appreciate the opportunity to use the funding solely within their settings, I am concerned that this ill-thought out policy will have a detrimental effect across the whole of the sector, and needs a real financial input to make a difference to families.

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