The complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) claimed that the DfE’s marketing of the extended entitlement as '30 hours of free childcare a week' implied that the hours are available all year round. He pointed out that the scheme's average number of free hours over a full year is less than 30 hours per week.
The complainant also said he believed that the information gave the impression that existing childcare services were available for free, when some childcare providers are charging for extra services.
Following the complaint, the DfE has now amended information about the 30 hours on the Childcare Choices website to make it clear, stating: 'If you are eligible, 30 hours is available for 38 weeks of the year (just like the existing 15 hours scheme). Some providers will allow you to "stretch" your 30 hours entitlement over 52 weeks, using fewer hours per week.'
It also says that the 30 hours is a total of 1,140 hours a year that can be used flexibly with one or more childcare provider and which can be stretched over 52 weeks of the year and also delivered at weekends.
It adds, 'The 30 hours free childcare offer is not intended to cover the costs of meals, other consumables (such as nappies or sun cream), additional hours or additional activities (such as trips). Providers may charge a fee for these additions. If you choose to pay for these it is an arrangement between you and the childcare provider. However, you must not be required to pay any fee as a condition of taking up a 30 hours place, and must be offered alternative options.'
A spokesperson for the DfE told Nursery World that the changes were already in progress and were not made as a direct result of the ASA complaint, as information on the website is regularly updated.
The ASA said that, based on the changes that were made and the purpose of the Childcare Choices website to set out the 30 hours ‘free’ childcare scheme in general terms and provide an overview of the policy, it considered the claims on the website are now not likely to mislead. On this basis, it said it has ‘informally’ closed the case.
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) said, 'NDNA has insisted since this scheme began that the Government is misleading parents by calling it "free childcare".
'It is not free either for providers or parents, who have to pick up the shortfall amounting to almost £1,000 per child per year.
'This case has proved that, although many local authorities do allow parents to stretch the funded hours across 51 weeks, in reality it falls short of the promised 30 hours per week.
'We are pleased that the Government has finally been forced into altering its description of this very important parental benefit.'
Children and families minister Robert Goodwill said, ‘We are supporting as many families as possible with access to high-quality, affordable childcare, and earlier this year we fulfilled our promise to double the free childcare offer available to working parents to 30 hours a week, saving them up to £5,000 a year per child. Tens of thousands of hardworking families are already benefiting from that offer.
‘The Childcare Choices website helps parents understand what support they are eligible for. We routinely update it with additional information and resources for parents. The Advertising Standards Agency’s response shows that the information available is sufficient for parents to make informed choices.’
Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said, 'The Department for Education knows full well that the 30-hour offer is severely underfunded – but rather than deal with this problem directly, it has instead published vague and often contradictory guidance which encourages childcare providers to charge additional fees but still enables the Government to claim that it is delivering ‘free’ childcare.
'At the root of this confusion is the Government’s unwillingness to admit that the true cost of ‘free’ childcare can only be met by asking parents to foot the bill. Why else would the official guidance state that parents should be able to access places completely free, but that they should also ‘expect’ to pay for meals and snacks? With the Government more focused on creating regulatory loopholes than providing practical help to local authorities and providers, it’s no wonder so many in the sector are struggling to navigate the rules of parents can or cannot be asked to pay for.
'Childcare providers are being put in an impossible situation, with many being forced to ask parents to effectively subsidise a service that has been advertised as free – often by charging for good and services previously offered for free – or risk facing closure. This isn’t fair on providers and it certainly isn’t fair on parents, and it’s time the Government fixed the mess it created.'