Providers criticise 'vague' free childcare guidance

By Gabriella Jozwiak

| 24 April 2017

Guidance issued by the government on how local authorities and early years providers should manage the expanded 30 hours of free childcare being introduced in September has been criticised for being too vague.

Pre-school Learning Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch said there is a "lack of clarity around the rules on charging" in government guidance on the 30 hours offer. Picture: Lucie Carlier

The operational guidance includes statutory guidelines, information on how to help parents access and pay for the support, and case studies of how free entitlements have been delivered in some of the 12 pilot sites across England. 

It suggests that local authorities encourage providers to deliver flexible packages of hours within certain parameters, which include that no session be longer than 10 hours, that there is no minimum session length, that a session does not start before 6am or end after 8am, and that a parent can only access the hours from a maximum of two childcare sites in a day.

It also confirms that government funding is not intended to cover the cost of "meals, other consumables, additional hours or optional activities". Childcare providers have previously raised concerns that the £4.30 hourly funding rate the government will provide from September to cover the cost of delivering the care is too low.

The guidance states: "Providers can charge for meals and snacks, consumables and optional activities as part of the free entitlement delivery, as long as parents are not required to pay as a condition of taking up their child's free entitlement place."

But Pre-school Learning Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch said he was disappointed by the "lack of clarity around the rules on charging" contained within the guidance. He added that providers should not have to "rely on additional charges to stay afloat".

"As it stands, providers are being put in an impossible position: having to try and deliver an underfunded offer while ensuring that they adhere to government rules that are vague and often contradictory," said Leitch

"We know that many providers were relying on this document to provide more detailed guidance on this issue, and yet, it tells us little more than we already knew."

Sarah Steel, managing director of the Old Station Nursery group agreed that the charging section of the guidance was "ambiguous".

"It demonstrates that the DfE knows we need to charge because the funding rates are not enough, and yet it still says, the place must not be conditional on any charges," said Steel.

"How can you have a child receive childcare for 30 hours a week and not give them breakfast, a morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack and tea?

"It's a real fudge. We're really disappointed."

The guidance also provides details of how parents can pay for their children's care through the new tax free childcare scheme, which launched on 21 April. This will allow eligible parents to claim 20 per cent of their childcare costs up to a total of £10,000 a year.

The DfE has been contacted for a response.

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