Analysis

Nurses welcome increase in free childcare but stumbling blocks loom

Parents of young children may be entitled to 30 hours a week of free childcare from the beginning of this month, but nurseries say the government’s funding offer falls far short.

Parents of young children may be entitled to 30 hours a week of free childcare from the beginning of this month, but nurseries say the government’s funding offer falls far short

childcare
The new childcare allowance is welcome, as long as it’s properly funded.
 Picture: iStock

Cash-strapped nurses with young children can access up to 30 hours a week of free childcare in England from the beginning of this month.

But while the increase in funded care for three and four year olds is a welcome relief for many nurses after years of pay restraint, nurseries have warned it could threaten the services they offer.

Many childcare providers are having to add supplementary charges or restrict the free hours they provide because the Westminster government’s funding is seen as insufficient to cover costs, according to early years membership organisation the Pre-school Learning Alliance.

74%

of nurseries told the Pre-school Learning Alliance survey that funding levels for the free childcare offer were ‘inadequate’

NHS-provided nurseries told Nursing Standard that the amount of funding per child was inadequate.

In a Pre-school Learning Alliance survey of 1,400 childcare providers in August, three-quarters (74%) said the funding levels for the 30 hours do not cover the cost of providing a place.

Just over half (52%) said they would increase the cost of other services, such as food or trips, and more than one third (38%) said they didn’t think the offer would be sustainable for them in 12 months.

The government says the doubling of the previous entitlement of 15 free hours a week could save families £5,000 a year in childcare costs. All parents in England have previously been entitled to a total of 570 hours per year of free childcare after their child’s third birthday, usually taken as 15 hours a week for the 38 weeks of school term time.

The new scheme allows eligible parents a total of 1,140 hours per year.

Urgent need

The Department for Education says more than 200,000 parents have successfully applied to receive the free childcare hours.

The RCN and the Cavell Nurses’ Trust, which supports nurses facing hardship, say nurses urgently need support with costs such as childcare.

An RCN Employment Survey in 2015 found that 13% of respondents had struggled with childcare costs. The public sector pay freeze means nurses have had a pay cut of 14% in real terms since 2010. Nurses are twice as likely to face financial hardship as the general public, according to the Cavell Nurses’ Trust.

RCN head of employment relations Josie Irwin says the scheme is welcome – if properly funded.

14%

The RCN says nurses have had a real-terms pay cut of 14% since 2010

‘Childcare costs are really important for our members and have been going up,’ she says. ‘It sometimes becomes a question of whether it is worth going to work when you have to pay most of your salary for childcare, particularly for nurses with awkward shift patterns. So 30 hours of free childcare will be an enormous help. Given the austerity in the NHS and nurses’ pay, every little helps.’

Many nurses rely on childminders, nurseries or pre-schools to allow them to work, and a number of NHS trusts provide nurseries on site. Some of these are run by the NHS and some by private providers. Many trusts, like most employers, offer a salary sacrifice scheme that enables parents to pay for childcare tax-free.

‘It should be targeted more equitably at those who need it most and more equitably funded’

Neil Leitch

Pre-school Learning Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch says nurseries are extremely concerned about how they are going to survive, with the government paying on average only £4.27 an hour per child. Other costs, such as nappies, food and trips, will increase, and nurses with younger children not covered by the free hours could be hit with higher fees, he says.

‘Nurses will benefit if they can find a nursery place, but it is not what they were promised,’ he says. ‘It should be targeted more equitably at those who need it most and more equitably funded, or an honest statement made by the government that says it is a contribution and not free.’

Increased rate

NHS-provided nurseries told Nursing Standard they would cope with the free 30 hours, but some said the funding was inadequate. But they also said they would remain in business in a year’s time.

Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust says the money is only sufficient if the 30 hours are taken over three days a week, rather than spread over four or five days. Children receiving 30 hours of funded care and then taking additional hours are being charged an increased hourly rate for the extra time. ‘We expect it to be sustainable as we are a not-for-profit service,’ a nursery spokesperson says.

Adrian Buggle, director of finance at Southend University Hospital, says: ‘The current funding rate of £4.18 per hour does not cover the cost of delivering a 30-hour childcare placement. The hourly charge for trust staff is £4.45 and £5.60 for private parents. The amount we charge for non-funded hours as a result of the 30-hour offer has not changed.’

£5,000

Families could save £5,000 a year if they receive 30 hours a week of free childcare

King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust in London says the viability of its nursery will ‘remain under review’, but says no parents have yet applied for 30 free hours. ‘The 30 hours hourly rate to providers is less than the London living wage and the national minimum wage,’ a spokeswoman says.

Emergency nurse Francesca Elmer, the mother of a teenager and two school-age children, hopes the teething problems with the 30-hour allowance will be ironed out for the good of the profession.

'When I was studying my youngest was still in nursery and it was costing £700 a month,' she recalls. 'Although the bursary helped, I had to rely on donations from family to get by. My husband earns a competitive wage in the private sector, but there is no way I could manage if I was trying to raise children on two nursing salaries alone.

'It will make such a big difference to nurses to get 30 hours of free care. If the government isn’t going to pay us properly then they have to offer schemes like this to balance it out.'

‘It’s hard to find childcare to cover shift work anyway, so the funded hours at least give nurses something’

Lisa Simpson

Children's nurse Lisa Simpson, who has a two-year-old son, says there is a danger nurses will not return to the profession after having children if funding is not available.

'It's hard to find childcare to cover shift work anyway, so the funded hours at least give nurses something,’ she says.

'Childcare is expensive. Without schemes like this, people might not go back to work, because it would not be worth working.'

Childcare allowances across the UK

  • In England, funding is open to parents working a minimum of 16 hours a week at the national living or minimum wage, and earning less than £100,000 a year. Parents can choose whether to use their entitlement as 30 hours per week during term time or 22.8 hours per week across 50 weeks of the year.
  • Starting this month, the Welsh Government is piloting a similar 30-hour offer for three and four year olds across seven local authorities.
  • In Scotland, three and four year olds, and some two year olds, are entitled to 600 hours of free early learning and childcare every year, equivalent to 16 hours per week. The Scottish Government says it is committed to increasing this to 1,140 hours per year by 2020.
  • In Northern Ireland, parents of three and four year olds can apply for 12.5 hours per week of funded pre-school education.

Erin Dean is a freelance journalist

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