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Chaos as almost half of parents can’t access flagship Tory childcare pledge

‘It adds insult to injury that there is funding we’re entitled to yet can’t utilise due to not enough provision in the area we live,’ mother says

Maya Oppenheim
Women’s Correspondent
Monday 15 January 2024 13:30 GMT
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Hunt hails childcare extra funding 'biggest transformation' of his lifetime

Almost half of parents cannot find nurseries or childminders offering the Tories’ flagship free hours pledge, according to troubling new data.

Research by campaign group Pregnant then Screwed found 45 per cent of parents have been unable to find anywhere to send their children which will deliver the new scheme for two-year-olds.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt unveiled a major expansion of free childcare to attract voters last year, with eligible working parents of two-year-olds told they can claim 15 hours a week of free childcare from 1 April.

But last month, The Independent revealed that thousands of nurseries have shut their doors amid a staffing crisis, sparking fears the £4billion scheme was “doomed to failure”.

We also revealed warnings from experts that his Budget childcare pledge was fast unravelling amid “chaos” over funding arrangements. Some warned the sector has not been given enough cash or support to deliver the promise by April.

Parents have been able to apply since this beginning of this year for a code which enables them to sign up for the government’s new scheme for two-year-olds.

Jeremy Hunt (Maja Smiejkowska/PA) (PA Wire)

But Pregnant Then Screwed’s polling of 6,058 parents entitled to the new funding for two-year-olds found only around one in ten parents have been able to get a code.

Almost two fifths of parents also said they do not understand how the scheme works, with some saying they keep trying to get their code but, because the website is glitching, it sends them back to the log-in page. Other parents report being given wrong advice from the childcare helpline.

Danielle, a mother from Norwich, said: “The first time I called, I was on hold for four hours, only to be hung up on. I called the following day and waited another three hours. I can’t express my frustration at the usability of this system - people who work, who have young kids and need childcare don’t have that sort of time.’’

Around a third of parents say their childcare provider is not able to tell them if they will be accepting the codes.

Georgina, a mother-of-three from Northamptonshire, said her nursery has just informed her they “cannot afford to continually take a hit on the deficit between our daily rate and what we are receiving from the government - even with charging parents a consumable (top-up).”

Why does it often feel as though these schemes are drafted on the back of a fag packet without proper consideration for the end user?

Joeli Brearley

She added: “So therefore they are opting out of the 15/30 hour government funding from April 2024”.

Georgina said this means her monthly spending on childcare costs will reach nearly £2,000 a month by May.

“I just do not know how or if we can afford this and it adds insult to injury that there is funding we’re entitled to yet can’t utilise due to not enough provision in the area we live,” she added.

Ministers rolled out 30 hours of free childcare per week in term time for three- and four-year-olds in England in 2017 but experts have warned the childcare sector is already struggling to provide this.

Joeli Brearley, chief executive and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said they have been “inundated with messages from frantic parents who don’t understand the system, or expect to receive their code too late”.

She added: “Why does it often feel as though these schemes are drafted on the back of a fag packet without proper consideration for the end user?

Parents are struggling to access childcare funding (John Stillwell/PA) (PA Archive)

“Parents struggling to understand the system or trying to secure their code are told to call the childcare services helpline, but parents we have spoken to complain of being on call waiting for very long periods, with many saying the line then cuts out.

“Our benefit helpline isn’t able to keep up with demand, and we’re being flooded with messages. We’ve become a childcare helpline for the government overnight.”

The government’s new policy enables eligible working parents of two-year-olds to claim 15 hours a week of free childcare for 38 weeks of the year from April onwards. And from September 2025, working parents who have children under five will be able to claim 30 hours of free childcare for 38 weeks per year.

Recent figures from the schools inspectorate Ofsted revealed that 3,320 of the 62,300 nurseries and childminders caring for under-fives in England had shut their doors in the past year alone, leaving 17,800 fewer childcare places available.

The number of nurseries and early years services for under-fives has plummeted by a quarter in recent years, from 84,970 in 2015-2016 to 63,207 in 2022-2023.

Meanwhile, the Confederation of British Industry has estimated that implementing the government’s expanded childcare plans will cost £8.9bn rather than the £4bn ministers have allocated to fund the increase in places.

A spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “The childcare application system is working as intended, with thousands of parents applying for and receiving codes to access their new free childcare entitlements every day.

“We are working to ensure all parents can access their codes in time to use the new entitlements in April and confirm childcare places as soon as possible.”

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