More than 40,000 pre-school children 'missing out on free childcare promised by the Government'

Some 41,300 three year olds are not getting free early education in England, report says

More than 40,000 pre-school children are missing out on free childcare promised by the Government, and the problem is set to worsen with many local authorities unable to provide enough places, according to a new report.

The number of local authorities in England with insufficient places for three and four year olds has more than doubled in the past year, from 23 to 59, states the report by the Family and Childcare Trust.

Some 41,300 three year olds are not getting free early education in England, and more than a third of councils are struggling to meet demand, it says.

The national shortage is jeopardising the Government’s pledge to double the free childcare to 30 hours a week, during term time, for working parents by 2017, warns the report, based on data provided by local authorities.

The issue is not confined to pre-school children. Just nine per cent of local authorities in England and Wales, and 12 per cent in Scotland, have sufficient after-school care for primary school children.

Local authorities in England and Wales are legally obliged to ensure there is sufficient childcare for working parents, under The Childcare Act 2006. Yet only 45 per cent of councils in England and 40 per cent in Wales provide enough places for parents working full-time. And in Scotland, only 13 per cent of local authorities have sufficient places.

The report also reveals how a family with one child under two in part-time childcare and one child at an after-school club faces an average annual bill of £7,933 – more than 28 per cent of the median household income in Britain. The average weekly cost of a part-time nursery place for a child under two is £116.77, and for a child aged two or older it is £111.88. 

There are “serious cracks in our childcare system,” argues the report, citing problems of finding childcare which is flexible and affordable. “Childcare funding needs comprehensive reform and the creation of a simple and efficient system that encourages quality, promotes child development, supports working parents and delivers for employers and the economy,” it concludes.

Julia Margo, chief executive at the Family and Childcare Trust, said: “High costs and inflexible provision remain a barrier for parents moving into work, and many children miss out – particularly those with disabilities or those living in in rural areas – or they attend poor quality provision.”

She added: “Unless these problems are addressed urgently, they will jeopardise the success of the extension to free early education in 2017, limit the effectiveness of other Government support, and prevent families from moving into work and out of poverty.”

And Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, commented: It is extremely concerning that local councils are increasingly struggling to provide sufficient funded places. This is a problem that will only worsen with the roll-out of the 30-hour scheme – many providers have warned that they simply will not be able to deliver the extended scheme, not only due to lack of funding, but also a lack of available places.”

The Government’s pledge of providing 30 hours of free childcare by 2017 was a “Tory gimmick for the general election,” according to Baroness Walmsley, former member of the select committee on affordable childcare.

“Anyone who knows the sector could have told them this was not deliverable within their timescale, especially at the price the Government are paying providers. You have to pay a fair price for quality. The Tories promised too much too soon and raised parents’ expectations only to have them dashed,” she said.

But, responding to the report’s findings, Sam Gyimah, education and childcare minister, said: “Latest figures show 7,000 more providers are offering the universal 15 hours offer with 1.3million children - the vast majority taking it up.” He added: “Thanks to record investment by this government - £6billion a year by 2020 – and with our plan to double the free childcare offer for working parents we expect take-up numbers to rise.”

Case study

Laura Jacques, who works in marketing, and her husband Daniel, a postman, both 31, live in the London Borough of Sutton. Their daughter Poppy is 22 months old.

“The government have yet again made false promises to parents by saying there's a number of free places for working parents however where we live in Sutton nursery places are oversubscribed, the council are only helping those on low income or benefits. They don't help hard working parents at all, our childcare full time is the same as our rent. It's about time the government realised that working parents are important, they should give us tax breaks and offer more nursery places for parents who work more than 30 hours a week instead of making false promises. It's upsetting to know that working doesn't really pay and that we would be better off working less hours to qualify for the free childcare places.”

Jonathan Owen

 

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