Are parents paying for free nursery places?

Published: 29th Jan 2018

In brief

Claim

Parents are subsidising a new flagship "free" nursery scheme for three- and four-year-olds in England from their own pockets.

Conclusion

28% of childcare providers responding to a survey said that if they provided the new 30 hours of free childcare, there were additional costs on top for more hours, or other goods and services. We don’t know how representative this is of all childcare providers, and it’s based on a low response rate.

“Parents are subsidising a new flagship "free" nursery scheme for three- and four-year-olds in England from their own pockets, a survey suggests.”

BBC News, 18 January 2017

Since September 2017, some three and four year-olds in England have been entitled to 1,140 hours a year of free childcare, which can be taken as up to 30 hours a week. 28% of childcare providers responding to a survey by the Pre-school Learning Alliance say they don’t provide any children with 30 hours of childcare a week “completely free”.

This means that, in these cases, parents whose children receive 30 hours of free childcare under the scheme have to pay for additional costs, such as extra hours on top of the 30, or additional charges for things like meals. 36% of providers responding to the survey said they were delivering all of the places for children receiving the 30 hours free childcare completely free, with no extra charges.

But, only 1,662 of the 12,000 Alliance members who received the survey responded, so we don’t know what those who didn’t respond might be experiencing, or if they’re different in any way to those who did respond. The Alliance also told us that the survey wasn’t weighted to be representative of all childcare providers in England.

In England, all three and four year-olds are entitled to 570 hours of free childcare a year (usually 15 hours a week for 38 weeks a year). The 30 hours policy, introduced by the government in September 2017, doubled the number of free hours of childcare available for many three and four year-olds in England to 1,140 hours a year

Many providers told a survey they didn’t provide completely free childcare to those eligible for 30 hours

28% of English childcare providers responding to an online survey in December 2017 said they were not delivering any 30 hours places “completely free”.

This doesn’t mean that they were denying parents their free hours. It means that, if they provided 30 free hours, the provider charged for other things like meals and nappies, or parents who used 30 free hours were paying for additional hours on top of this.

It was conducted by the Pre-school Learning Alliance, an educational charity representing early years organisations in England, which told us it sent the survey to around 12,000 of its members.

Of these, 1,662 nurseries, pre-schools and childminders responded. We don’t know what the other providers who didn’t respond might experience and if this was different in any way.

The survey also wasn’t weighted to be representative of all childcare providers, so it may not reflect the experience of the English childcare market as a whole. For example, 22% of the survey respondents were childminders, whereas 53% of registered childcare providers in England were childminders in August 2017, according to Ofsted data.

55% of all providers who responded to the survey said “that the funding they receive is less than both their usual hourly charge and the hourly cost of delivering a childcare place.” Providers may not charge “top-up” fees to make up the difference between the funding for and the cost of a free place. But they can do other things like charge for additional goods and services such as meals, snacks, nappies, trips, and yoga. Of those providers who responded, 37% said they have introduced or increased charges for this kind of service.

96% of eligible applicants took up a “30 hours” place

In the autumn term 2017, 96% of children whose parents had applied and were deemed eligible for the 30 hours free childcare scheme secured a place, according to figures from the Department for Education. That’s just under 203,000 children who received between 15 and 30 hours of free childcare a week under the scheme. The government’s figures don’t tell us anything about whether or not the parents of these children faced any extra charges or not.

All local authorities provided figures on parents applying and children actually in 30 hours places, but 41% of them were only able to provide estimates rather than actual figures.

What is the “free” childcare policy?

The new 30 hours free childcare policy was introduced by the government in September 2017.

In England, all three and four year-olds are entitled to 570 hours of free childcare a year. The government says this is usually taken as 15 hours a week over 38 weeks, but the hours can be stretched over a larger number of weeks if necessary. The 30 hours policy doubles the availability to 1,140 hours a year, which could be similarly taken over 38 weeks, for three and four year old children whose parents meet certain criteria. The hours can’t be taken over fewer than 38 weeks though.

The government allocates funding to each local authority, based on certain criteria, and this is then distributed by the local authority to childcare providers.

Doubling the entitlement for many three and four year-olds means that a lot more free hours of childcare may have to be provided. The government has previously estimated that this will affect around 390,000 families and we’ve asked if this is still the case.


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