More councils bow to pressure on ‘free’ 30-hour childcare

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Councils around the country are ditching the word ‘free’ to describe the 30 hours childcare offer in favour of ‘funded’ following sustained lobbying from early years providers.

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Clockwise from top left: Somerset, Essex, Doncaster, Suffolk

  • Provider pressure over 30 hours information gets results
  • Councils start to refer to ‘funded’ childcare rather than ‘free’

Councils around the country are ditching the word ‘free’ to describe the 30 hours childcare offer in favour of ‘funded’ following sustained lobbying from early years providers.

The move comes amid parental confusion over the terms of the 30 hours and growing opposition from parents to paying for ‘extras’, particularly those new to the 15- or 30-hour entitlements.

Department for Education guidance says parents ‘should’ expect to pay for consumables, but settings cannot make an offer of a place dependent on parents paying for any extras.

Local authorities have been sending out promotional leaflets and banners to nurseries in preparation for the autumn term, with significant numbers now describing the 30 hours as ‘funded’, rather than ‘free’.

Leeds City Council has changed the way it promotes the 30 hours ahead of the autumn term, a move welcomed by nursery owner Danielle Dixon, who said it will make it easier to explain the 30 hours to parents. Ms Dixon, director and founder of Kinder Haven Day Nurseries, which runs nine settings in the Bradford and Leeds area, told Nursery World, ‘Half the battle is that the Government needs to remove the word “free”, as it is not free, and allow early years settings to charge a difference.

‘We recently received an email from Leeds City Council to say that following feedback from providers they have removed the word “free” from the banners they are giving us to promote the 30 hours. This has been replaced by the word “funded”. This is a great step in the right direction. Let’s hope every council follows suit and updates their terminology so it is clearer for parents.’

A Leeds City Council spokesperson said, ‘Following feedback from parents, carers and childcare providers who had expressed their confusion over the definition of the term “free” regarding the 30-hour childcare offer, we took the decision to use the term “funded” instead.

‘We believe this term offers more clarity and ensures that parents are aware that there may be an additional fee for elements and activities that form part of a nursery’s wider offer, such as extra hours, meals, snacks, nappies, baby yoga or language sessions.’

Suffolk has also changed the way it advertises the 30 hours. A spokesperson said, ‘Having listened to the concerns of early years and childcare providers, Suffolk County Council has taken the decision to promote and advertise early years childcare and education using the terminology “funded” rather than “free”. We believe this better reflects the current situation.

‘We will incorporate this wording in all advertising activity from now on. However, there may be materials already in the public domain that use the word “free”. We will work to replace these as appropriate.’

Somerset local authority said it has always used the word ‘funded’ to describe the Government’s childcare offer.

A spokesperson said, ‘We have used the term “funded” from the outset, even before the 30 hours offer was introduced. This was in response to feedback from providers and reflects the sector’s desire for the council to be clear to the public.’

Keeping 'free'

Some local authorities, however, are continuing to stand by the use of the word ‘free’.

In Essex, owner of Cheeky Monkeys Helen Palmer said she had just received a box of new leaflets and a poster, which the postman told her was being delivered to every nursery in the county. The poster says, ‘Are you eligible for up to 30 hours of free childcare?’

Ms Palmer wrote to the council several months ago about the wording used to describe the 30 hours, and received a reply saying the council will consult providers at the end of the year.

‘It’s misleading to parents. We share conversations with parents that it [the 30 hours] is subsidised by us. But if you haven’t had your child in nursery before it can be a bit of a shock,’ she said.

She added that a parent whose child has been at the nursery for a while and has just become eligible for the entitlement called in to query the invoice.‘I explained that we’re charging for lunches and Forest School. It’s just uncomfortable to have that conversation with parents.

‘It makes it look like I’m defending what I’m charging – I shouldn’t have to defend what I’m charging for sessions.’

In response, an Essex County Council spokesperson said, ‘The 30 hours free childcare scheme is a Government initiative and the council is committed to helping deliver it locally to support working parents in Essex.

‘All promotional materials have been produced in line with the Department for Education’s communications guidance for local authorities.’

Government guidance for providers and local authorities, last updated in June, still bears the title ‘30 hours free childcare: LA and early years provider guide’.

The information for parents about help with paying for childcare on the Childcare Choices website refers to both ‘15 hours free childcare’ and ‘30 hours free childcare’.

The DfE said it had no plans to change the way it describes the 30 hours entitlement on any of its guidance. It said that it was up to local authorities to decide how they advertise 30-hour childcare locally, but stressed that it ought to be made clear that additional provisions may incur extra charges.

Bright Horizons – the UK’s second-largest nursery group – operates in many local authority areas and describes the offer as both ‘funded ‘ and ‘free’.

On its website, the group puts the word ‘free’ in quote marks, stating, ‘What is the Government’s 30 hours “free” childcare offering?’ Underneath it says, ‘Bright Horizons is pleased to offer 30 hours funded childcare for all eligible families.’

Working together

Jo Morris Golds, owner of Playsteps and a spokesperson for the Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding (CNLF) Facebook group, said they had seen an increase in the 30 hours being described as ‘funded’.

‘CNLF have been encouraging providers to speak to their LAs about this, so it’s a great example of providers and LAs working together to provide a more accurate offer to parents,’ she said.

‘Suffolk, Lancashire and Somerset are examples of LAs that have listened to their providers and now advertise funded childcare. Some LAs have gone part way towards this – for example, Cheshire West and Cheshire are using “funded” in their marketing but “free” in correspondence to parents, and in my local authority (Swindon) “free” has been replaced by “funded” on our provider portal but not in marketing to parents.’

She added, ‘I hope that the use of the word “funded” rather than “free” will help to clarify some of the confusion that has arisen due to ambiguous advertising from the Government which states that the hours are “free” but that parents “can expect” to pay for things which the funding “is not intended” to cover.

‘This has been a source of contention between providers and some parents who have been led by the advertising to believe that it is 30 hours a week every week, it is totally free, including all the additional services provided and that the hours can be taken completely flexibly to suit every family’s individual requirements.

‘The truth is, as it always has been, for the majority of providers, offering these hours is only possible when parents agree to pay for additional services to help to bridge the gap between the cost of provision and the funding rates paid. It’s not free and it’s great to see that local authorities are beginning to recognise that.’

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association, said, ‘Many local authorities are now recognising that it’s misleading to use the word “free” for their marketing of the 30 hours funded childcare offer. This policy is not free to providers or parents and it’s time the DfE acknowledges this in their marketing.

‘Dropping the word “free” is just the start, and investment in the 30-hour policy needs to match the costs year on year in order to be successful.’

How local authorities promote 30-hour childcare to parents

‘Funded’

  • Leeds
  • Suffolk
  • Somerset
  • Lancashire
  • Staffordshire
  • Nottinghamshire
  • North Yorkshire

‘Free’

  • Essex
  • Bristol
  • Walsall
  • Peterborough
  • Doncaster

A mix of both ‘free’ and ‘funded’

  • York
  • Cheshire West
  • Chester
  • Swindon
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