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Nurseries Need Parents To Subsidise Free Hours, But How This Will Work In Practice Still Isn’t Clear

Charging for ‘extras’? It’s a minefield, says Sarah Steel

  • Nurseries Need Parents To Subsidise Free Hours, But How This Will Work In Practice Still Isn’t Clear

As I write, the announcements from the DfE are coming thick and fast. It’s been announced that the GCSE maths and English requirements for Early Years Educators will be replaced with functional skills, a measure widely welcomed by a sector struggling with recruitment. A revised EYFS has been released, with mercifully few changes to get our heads around.

And the model agreement for local authorities for delivering the 30 hours has also just been released; having been part of the working group that was consulted on this, I was really interested to see what was finally published.

With providers and local authorities on this group, we couldn’t have been clearer about our concerns about the pitiful funding rates. We were initially encouraged not to assume the worst, but many of us were disappointed when, despite promises that all providers would receive at least £4 per hour, it was revealed that some wouldn’t.

In Gloucestershire, we’re being told that the funding rate will be £3.80 per hour, and in Oxfordshire, with some of the highest living costs in the South East, it will be only £4.01.

Providers have been very vocal about the need to charge for meals and additional services, in order to make up the shortfall between what they need to break even and the funding rate.

The model agreement is better than I had feared, but still not clear, with the DfE stating that whilst providers can charge for these extras, funded hours “must not be conditional” on purchasing any of them.

I understand the ideology – taxpayer-funded hours should be free at the point of delivery – but it has to be backed up with hard cash. Pay us what we need to stay in business and we’ll provide your ‘free’ hours totally for free.

In reality, providers must find a way to bridge this funding gap. The hourly rate needed will vary depending by provider, but the vast majority will find themselves short – and as many children attend 30 hours or less per week, the opportunity to cross-subsidise with extra paid-for hours is slight.

We’re looking at a model where the funding is stretched across 51 weeks of the year (so about 22 hours per week) and we’ll then need to ensure that the charge for meals, nappies, sun cream, extra-curricular activities, etc. makes up the shortfall.

If a child attends nursery for 10 hours per day, they’ll usually have breakfast, morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack and tea during their day.

If providers must allow parents to bring a packed meal, will they bring all this in packed form? Where will we store it? How will we prevent cross-contamination of children who have severe allergies? How will we manage mealtimes when some children are tucking into crisps and others are eating shepherd’s pie?

It’s a minefield the DfE hasn’t yet plotted a course through. The current guidance is widely flouted by many providers and local authorities often turn a blind eye, as they have a statutory duty to ensure there are sufficient places, yet know that funding is inadequate. With most local authorities being cut drastically too, who will be left to police this?

All along the sector has lobbied to be part of the solution, but the DfE doesn’t seem to be listening.

I, for one, would like a transparent system that parents and providers can understand, and which recognises that government will provide a subsidy towards the childcare for working parents, but that they will be required to make up the shortfall – “1,140 hours subsidised childcare” may not be as catchy as “30 hours free childcare”, but it’s more realistic. Mind you, when was reality ever fashionable in politics?

Sarah Steel is managing director of the Old Station Nursery.

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