As the school term ends, figures from the Department of Education show that thousands of parents in West Sussex have used the Government-funded 30 hours a week of free childcare during its first year.
The scheme was introduced last September to provide additional free care for three and four-year-olds.
It’s been used to care for increasing numbers of children over the school year. Figures for the summer term show 5,373 children were in funded places. It was used by 4,747 children in the spring term and 3,368 when it was first rolled out in the autumn.
But the Pre-school Learning Alliance, which represents childcare providers, says that underfunding means that for many parents the childcare is not completely free and they end up ‘picking up the Government’s tab’.
Chief executive Neil Leitch said: “It’s important that the increasing demand and take up of 30 hours places doesn’t mask the huge issues that have dogged the policy since before its national rollout last September.
“Wherever you look, 30 hours is almost never ‘free’ for parents because underfunding has left providers with no choice but to ask parents to pay for ‘optional’ extras to make up the difference between funding and delivery costs.”
The 30-hours entitlement began last autumn when the Government doubled the hours of free childcare for some parents. All parents are entitled to 570 hours a year but this was increased to 1,140 for some – the equivalent of 30 hours over 38 weeks of the standard school year. Parents can spread fewer hours over more weeks.
The 30-hour scheme is open to families where both parents are working, or the sole parent is in work in a single parent household. Each parent must earn the equivalent of 16 hours per week at national minimum wage but less than £100,000.
Mr Leitch said: “There’s no doubt 30 hours benefits well-off families more – eligible parents can earn up to £100,000 each, while those with children who often have the most to gain from childcare, who find themselves at the bottom end of the income ladder, are being left behind.”
Parents go through a two-step process to access their free childcare. They must apply and, if eligible, are given an access code. They take this code to a provider to be validated before they can take up a place.
Across England, around 380,000 codes were issued and 340,000 places were taken up over the summer term. In West Sussex, 87 per cent of codes issued for the summer term were used to access childcare.
Government funding for the scheme is given to local authorities who make payments to frontline service providers.
Funding varies across the country, based on a formula of a basic rate plus additions, depending on the needs of children in the area. Additional funding is offered for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, those who have English as a second language or particular needs as a result of a disability.
In the current financial year West Sussex council receives an hourly rate of £4.78 per child.
Concern over funding for the scheme was raised by the Treasury Select Committee in its report on childcare in March.
The report said: “The Government must ensure that the hourly rate paid to providers reflects their current costs. It should also ensure that the hourly rate is updated annually in line with cost increases.”
It went on: “In order to cut costs, evidence suggests providers are cutting back on higher qualified staff and increasing their child-to-staff ratios. This could reduce the quality of the childcare being offered, working counter to the Government’s intention to improve the child development of three to four-year-olds.”
Neil Leitch of the Pre-school Learning Alliance said: “Before the national rollout childcare providers around the country warned ministers that 30 hours was underfunded – and since September we have been joined by parents and politicians from across the political spectrum.
“The best thing ministers can do now is to start listening to those struggling to deliver their flagship childcare scheme, review funding rates and then increase them so they match the true cost of delivering quality childcare.“