Last year, with much fanfare, the government announced their new deal for parents: 30 hours of free childcare for “hardworking families”. This is double the 15 hours currently provided for three and four-year olds. In addition, two-year olds from disadvantaged backgrounds will now be offered 15 hours of free childcare.
This is great news for parents especially as, according to the Family and Childcare Trust, costs are on the increase. For a part-time place, a family will spend £1,533 more this year than they did in 2010 – a 32.8% increase.
The government has dedicated £13 million to the scheme and eight councils -- Wigan, Staffordshire, Swindon, Portsmouth, Northumberland, York, Newham and Hertfordshire -- will be trialing it from September 2016.
So, will you qualify?
Unfortunately, some problems are surfacing. Accessing these hours hasn’t been as straightforward as it sounds. Many childcare providers lose money under the current scheme to provide 15 hours, so limit their places. The waiting lists for places in areas with few nurseries or a high density of young children can be years long. Some parents place their child on a waiting list before they are born.
Some nurseries have compromised by providing the hours, but only as a discount to full-time care. Others are inflexible, allowing parents a strict number of hours every day, but much less than a working day would require (for example: 3 hours a day for 5 days = 15 hours).
The situation is even worse for parents of children with special needs or disabilities at nursery age. Because these children cost more to look after (in terms of training, staffing and equipment), they are either denied places outright or, if parents are lucky enough to find them space, charged between eight and 15 times the fees of other parents. The government has not set aside extra funding to cover this.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Recent years have highlighted parents’ concerns, and the government’s response to provide more free hours is a start.
So, what can you do to ensure your child gets their free hours?
Since childcare providers offer different methods of accessing this funding, with a bit of homework and forward planning, your child will have access to an enriching, early years education.