There is *No Such Thing* as Free Childcare

In a neat irony, while news of the Tory Party’s “30 hours of free childcare” pledge was breaking on Twitter, I was at a preschool meeting begging for funds to keep our setting open. Our tiny local charity is so under funded that we have had to apply to another tiny local charity for a grant to cover the cost of statutory First Aid training. Politicians clearly believe that childcare is a vote winner, and so it has become the election equivalent of ‘tit for tat’. When Labour announced “25 hours of free childcare” it was only a matter of time before the Conservatives outbid their offer. But what neither party has bothered to do is to actually consult with the sector that is required to provide these so-called ‘free’ places.

At some point, someone somewhere must have sat down and figured out how much it costs to run an early years setting. I suspect their calculations were based on a mythical setting where local birth rates never vary, where all available places are always full, and where a ratio of one adult to thirteen 3 and 4 year olds is actually do-able. In other words, a setting that is nothing like our local village preschool, or like any other setting I know. Even though our setting is run for free, by volunteers, we are struggling desperately to make ends meet. In a good year, where local child numbers are high, we can just about get by. But the last few years have not been good years, government funding has not gone up from £3.50 an hour in living memory, and if things continue as they are we may have to close. Every funded hour we offer loses us money, and the more funded hours we are asked to offer, the more money we will lose. The only way I can see that we could provide 25 or 30 hours of funded places is to have a very high ratio of children to adults, and I’m just not willing to give up my free time to support that.

If settings close, because inadequate funding means they are no longer sustainable, then I’d like to know who exactly is going to provide these ‘free’ places. (Watch out if you work at a primary school – I have a feeling that this particular buck is going to stop with you.) So what’s the solution, apart from the obvious one of funding us for what it actually costs to provide a ‘free’ place, rather than expecting us to close the gap through low wages, endless fundraising, and volunteers? Well, I have a suggestion for the early years sector, because if you ask me, enough is enough. Instead of asking the politicians how much they are going to pay us to provide these ‘free’ places, how about we let them know how much we need to charge them*?

(*I reckon £5 an hour, since you ask, which seems perfectly reasonable to me.)

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4 Responses to There is *No Such Thing* as Free Childcare

  1. zanzibarcat says:

    Thanks for this. I listened with interest to Radio 4’s comment on the manifesto promises this afternoon and this problem was alluded to but now I understand more about the reality of delivering free nursery places.

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  2. J Wilson says:

    Sue – it sounds like you run what we had – a playgroup with funded places. But would you not say this could well be different from some nursery groups who I suspect filter off quite a bit of profit. But yes funding should be for playgroup places and half day at nursery, which is by the way what many many parents want. This has worked in our area for years, but the increased childcare offer has actually disrupted things so instead of morning and afternoon places which worked out fine, the nurseries have to offer all day places and this no longer suits people who work part time. And the kids are no longer with the same children which was what happened with morning or afternoon places. It is also having to start at 8.30 in the morning to fit in all the hours required by free places so mums who maybe have just two or three days off are having to get up really early to get the kids to nursery, where it used to start at 9.15.

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    • suecowley says:

      Hi, yes we’re a small voluntary run preschool playgroup. As you say, the longer hours may be easier for larger groups or chains to offer, as they can use economies of scale. It would be a shame to see small local groups go to the wall.

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  3. Frances Jupp says:

    And of course the expectation of more highly qualified staff means a higher wage bill too!

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