30 hours free childcare: only a quarter of places delivered?

Published: 24th Oct 2017

In brief

Claim

The government hasn’t delivered even a quarter of the childcare places they claimed they would.

Conclusion

This would have been correct based on old government policy, but the number of planned places has been reduced since then. The latest figures show the government has delivered just over half of the places it expects to.

“They (the government) haven’t even provided a quarter of the places they claimed. They have left hundreds of thousands of working parents either ineligible or unable to access the free childcare they were promised.”

Tracy Brabin, 11 September 2017

The government has so far delivered 54% of the new free childcare places which the Department for Education (DfE) planned to provide. When Ms Brabin made this claim, it had delivered 39%.

Ms Brabin’s claim also refers to an older estimate of the total number of free childcare places available, which has since been revised down by the DfE following a tightening of the eligibility criteria.

195,000 places taken up

In September, the government began its new policy of providing 30 hours of free childcare to working parents of 3 and 4 year old children. This is the policy that Ms Brabin’s comments relate to.

The previous policy was that all 3 and 4 year olds were entitled to 15 hours free childcare a week, so this doubles the availability for children whose parents meet certain conditions. A “parent” means, in this context, an adult who is the legal guardian of a particular child.

To be entitled to the extra childcare, a child’s parent, or both parents if they have two, must each be earning at least the national Minimum or Living Wage (and work at least 16 hours a week), as long as neither earns more than £100,000 a year before tax.

153,000 parents had taken up their new free childcare allowance when Ms Brabin made her claim. This figure was updated in October to 195,000.

It’s not clear how many places were planned for

Ms Brabin claims that the September figure of 153,000 places was less than a quarter of the places promised during the election.

The Conservatives did not promise a specific number of places in either their 2015 or 2017 manifestos. Both manifestos pledged 30 hours free childcare a week for working parents without saying how many parents would be reached.

The government did estimate, just after the 2015 election, that 600,000 families would be eligible. Labour says the Conservatives originally planned 630,000, but we have not been able to verify this.

In December 2015 the government reduced the estimate to 390,000 after tightening the eligibility criteria by doubling the minimum number of hours worked by parents from 8 to 16. A similar estimate of reaching “nearly 400,000 families’” was repeated by the government in December 2016.

The government stated in October that “we predicted that there would be approximately 200,000 eligible children in September, followed by another 100,000 or so after Christmas and Easter.”

It’s not clear whether these are new estimates or early breakdowns of the 390,000 figure. We have contacted the DfE to find out more.

54% of promised places have been delivered

If we take the DfE’s target of 390,000 places as a benchmark, then 54% of places have so far been delivered. This accounts for the 195,000 places delivered since September, and 15,000 more parents who had already been reached as part of a pilot scheme in 12 local authorities.

There is debate over how successful this delivery rate is.

The government has called it a “success story”, as they expected 200,000 applications for places starting in September. They also argued that the scheme is still in the early stages of implementation, with more places to be offered for January and Easter.

However, other measures suggest that 200,000 is a low target for success. The DfE predicted that the scheme would reach nearly 400,000 families, and the Pre-school Learning Alliance estimates that 478,000 children are eligible for the scheme.

There is a “big gap between those eligible and those who have had their code (for free childcare) validated”, according to Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association.

One reason for this could be technical issues with the government website, which prevented some parents from registering online, in order to receive a code which is needed to claim the 30 free hours.

Not all parents who signed up have got a place yet

Although 195,000 places have been delivered, 216,000 parents signed up for a 30 hours free childcare code by the end of August. This means 90% of places claimed for September have been delivered.

The government says that not all parents who sign up for a free childcare code intend to use it. Parents are automatically given a thirty hour code, even if they are applying for a different service such as tax-free childcare.

However, Ms Brabin suggests that nurseries lack the funding to provide all the places demanded, a sentiment echoed by Nick Leitch, chief executive of the pre-school Learning Alliance.

The government currently provides funding to local authorities, which then distribute it to childcare providers in their area. This funding is meant to allow the childcare services to provide enough free hours to meet government targets. The funding rate has increased by almost 40p an hour in order to meet the demands of the new policy.

Yet earlier in 2017, only a third of local authorities thought there would be enough funding available to cover the extra free childcare hours, according to the Family and Childcare Trust. 19% of childcare providers said they weren’t planning to offer the full free hours, and a further 51% weren’t sure, according to the Pre-School Learning Alliance.


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