Two of the biggest nursery groups in the country say the only way they can sustainably offer the 30 hours is to charge for extras or put restrictions on places.
In common with other providers, Busy Bees – the largest provider in the UK – and The Co-operative Childcare are having to restrict the times and days parents can take the 30 hours and charging for extras such as meals to deliver the scheme, because of low funding rates in some local authority areas.
The move will potentially affect thousands of parents as combined the two groups run more than 385 nurseries in England, providing places for nearly 40,000 children.
Bertram Nursery Group, which has 14 settings in England and 23 in Scotland, also told Nursery World it is charging for meals.
It follows comments from the children’s and families minister Robert Goodwill that the ‘big chains’ are participating in the 30 hours and are keen to deliver the places on the funding given.
There have also been suggestions from smaller childcare providers that larger nursery groups will be able to sustain any losses occurred by underfunding of the 30 hours without having to ask parents for more money.
Mr Goodwill repeated his comments during an urgent debate on the ‘free childcare entitlement’ in the House of Commons a day after (6 September) Busy Bees posted a statement on its website revealing its concerns about the sufficiency of the funding.
During the debate, Mr Goodwill said, ‘We look[ed] carefully at the cost of delivering childcare. That is £3.72 an hour – much less than the funding we are providing. Busy Bees has 267 nurseries across the country, and is delivering 30 hours. Despite the reservations we have heard, The Co-operative Childcare is delivering the 30 hours at its 45 nurseries, including 17 in London, which is one of the most expensive places to do that. Bright Horizons is participating in the scheme with its 296 nurseries. The big chains are participating. I go up and down the country talking to small independent and charitable nurseries and other providers including childminders, and they are also delivering with the funding we are putting in.’
Nursery World contacted Busy Bees for further comment. The nursery group’s managing director and co-founder Marg Randles said, ‘When you make the decision to open a nursery you have to take into consideration the cost to operate, and set your fees accordingly. Over the past few years there has been enormous pressure on providers to improve salaries, ensure their staff are well trained and to deliver outstanding care. All of this has to be taken into consideration when setting your day rate. It is also good business sense to attempt to factor in a surplus to ensure sustainability and allow for future investment and innovation. We have nurseries all over the UK and each nursery sets its day rate accordingly.
‘Understandably, where a provider deems it necessary to charge £60 per day to provide parents with essential support and peace of mind, £40 per day funding does not work. This is particularly the case in smaller nurseries with under 50 places where there is little opportunity to increase occupancy to close the gap on the shortfall in income. All indications suggest that additional Government funding will not be made available until 2020. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not an option as it will be more about moving a problem than solving it. I remain to be convinced that a universal offer is the way forward. Something needs to be done so that the funding is directed to where the greatest need is, which would allow local authorities to be more flexible on the funding rates, giving all childcare providers the chance to deliver better opportunities for children.’
Nursery World also contacted Bright Horizons, but it refused to answer specific questions about its delivery of 30-hour places. In a comment the nursery group said, ‘As a nationwide provider operating within multiple local authority areas, we are aware of the complexity of the scheme and are working with the Department for Education and the local authorities to simplify and consolidate processes where possible. We recognise that we have a common objective; to provide access to high-quality childcare and early education to families in a way that is sustainable for the sector.’
The Co-operative Childcare’s chief operating officer Sally Mayer has also said the nursery group is ‘not able to offer the scheme the way the Government has sold it’. The nursery group is charging for meals and non-funded areas of the day.
She made the comment on the BBC Radio Kent Breakfastshowtwo weeks ago (4 September), when she also said that ‘it is best to offer a less flexible model than not [offer the places] at all’.
In a separate comment, Ms Mayer added, ‘When the 30 hours initiative was introduced, we wanted to look at what we could do as a co-operative to make sure that eligible parents within our communities received the full benefits. At The Co-operative Childcare we’ve adopted the scheme in a way that works for us, so we can maintain our high-standards of care. The funding available doesn’t cover all the costs associated with operating our nurseries, so we will be introducing fees for funded parents to cover services such as meals and trips, and there will also be some reduced flexibility on the days available during which funded parents will be able to use their hours.
‘However, we have also ensured there is no increase in childcare costs for families with non-funded places and we’re able to continue paying our colleagues above the national living wage.
‘Our current parents have reacted positively to this scheme – we’ve seen the biggest take-up from our existing member owners, who will see a big difference in their childcare charges. By doubling the existing 15 hours free childcare to 30 hours, the scheme will offer more support to parents and guardians across the UK and particularly benefit those looking to get back into work or increase contracted hours. We’re pleased to have adopted the scheme in a way that works for us, our colleagues and parents.’
Bertram, the eighth-largest nursery group in the UK – according to last year’s Nursery Chains – has opted for a stretched offer and agreed supplementary charges for meals. Children are only allowed food provided by the nurseries to ensure their health, safety and well-being, says the nursery group.
Chief executive Cary Rankin told Nursery World, ‘Bertram nursery group are offering the 30 hours funded places stretched over 51 or 52 weeks of the year. Where we will charge a supplementary fee in line with the guidance, we will be operating with charges up to a maximum of £1 per hour.
‘Before accessing their child’s funded place, eligible parents will be required to sign a new parent agreement, which sets out the terms and conditions and supplementary charges attached to the funded place.’
Mr Goodwill added, ‘We are investing a record £6 billion every year by 2020 in childcare – more than ever before – and doubling the free childcare available to working parents to 30 hours a week, saving them up to £5,000 a year per child.
‘This funding includes an additional £1 billion per year by 2019-20 to pay for the free offers and to raise the national hourly rate to local authorities for three- and four-year-olds to £4.94 per hour.
‘Providers can choose whether to offer 30 hours and what pattern of days and hours they offer parents. It is also entirely reasonable for providers to charge parents for additional extras, such as meals, nappies and trips, but this cannot be a condition of the child’s place.’
- Cary Rankin writes more on Bertram’s delivery of the 30 hours at www.nurseryworld.co.uk/comment