30 hours: 'Pass me the garibaldi biscuits'

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Cary Rankin talks about Bertram Nursery Group's experience of the 30-hours.

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Let’s face it, you’d be hard pushed today to find a nursery provider or childminder who doesn’t have an opinion either way about the new Government 30 hours scheme. All you need do is switch on your TV or radio, or perhaps log into news and social media via the web and you are met with a story, post or blog about the problems associated with the scheme from design through to delivery. 

Conversely, there are also many positive stories, but we are more likely to see these attached to reports telling us how great the scheme is and how it is working amazingly well for families, rather than providers. 

Without detailing everything that’s right (uhum)…or wrong with the initiative, what we do know is that above everything, the entire 15 and 30 hours schemes continue to be significantly underfunded at Government level. Funding levels set were based on ‘flawed’ analysis leading to inaccurate reports on the costs of delivering childcare, which in turn guided the Department for Education (DfE) to set their budgets and local authority (LA) provider rates….roughly speaking.                                                                                                                                              You never know, internal conversations at the highest levels around the 30 hours funding scheme might have gone a little something like this………

Frank – “Just got the report back on costs of childcare, looks right enough….we best get this over to the decision makers”.

Carole – “You know what, we’re well behind schedule so let’s just push this through and then we might just have to make it up as we go along”.

Frank – “Do we have time to change any of the wording?  Where’s that Tipex gone”?

Carole – “Ahh leave it, keep it as FREE and we’ll just write a new policy to tell providers how to charge extras or ask for donations to make up any shortfalls…”

Frank – “Phew, though that might come back on us and make us look bad for a minute”!

Months Later….

Frank – “Seems to be going well don’t you think…….everyone’s on board”! 

Carole – [Peers over paper] “Pass me the Garibaldi biscuits will you please”.

Frank – “What’s your thoughts on applications, should we knock up an online process and just give them a code, seems to work for Tax ………….”

Carole – “Don’t worry I’ve got that covered……..[pulls out ZX Spectrum and modem] now where’s that coding for Dummies book”?

Who knows…………….

So we know the Government Gateway application process and HMRC portal has been plagued with problems despite the length of time available to build, test, adapt and re-test. But it just follows that all too familiar patterned response of an apology, followed by a commitment to ‘get it working.'

It’s just not good enough, this really should have been managed better from the top! But as always, we crack on and pick up the pieces. We are after all a resilient and hardy bunch.

Local authorities certainly haven’t been dealt a great card either, we know they are grossly underfunded and most are working hard to pass on as much of the funding as they can and have focused their efforts on setting criteria which is as uncomplicated and fair as possible.

Like many other providers with multiple nurseries operating across several LA’s, we have experienced very different levels of service, support and communication from the LA’s we work with. Some did their level best to work with us and maintain a really good level of communication and support, offering workshops and telephone support where required.  They consulted early and listened to feedback or choices around supplements. They drafted provider agreements early and were willing to discuss the ‘must’ and ‘should’ elements of the guidance so that there was no confusion or misinterpretation. They understood and supported the elements which were/are business decisions (for us to make) and avoided imposing their own view of how we should operate. 

Sadly, we also dealt with the polar opposite. This made managers lives particularly difficult and they felt like it was a battle of sides rather than working together. 

As a nursery group we made the decision to share our plan for delivery with the LA’s and communicate early on how we would run the scheme. We opted for the stretched offer and agreed supplementary charges, as per the guidelines. Yes, we had push-back and challenges to our proposal, particularly around packed lunches; but we stuck to our guns and insisted this would be how we run the offer where the guidance says ‘should’ and not ‘must’.

It wasn’t easy or straightforward as we also had to consider billing software restrictions and capabilities, but eventually we agreed on how we would deliver it, we formalised it within contracts and parent agreements and then we shared this with our parents. In fact, we feel that our constant communication through fact sheets, leaflets and flyers on the 30 hours meant our parents were kept up to speed all the way through the process.  

So how has it been on the front-line for our hard-working nursery management teams at Bertram?

Feedback from sites, sharing manager and parent experiences, has included:

"No real issues, we’ve had 12 existing children receiving the 30 hours and 3 new bookings. Parents seem to have been able to obtain their codes quite easily and we have had no problems activating them with the LA."

"Lots of parents have reported problems accessing the HMRC website. Many families with EAL have struggling through the process."

"The 30 hours appealed to lots of parents at first but they have not signed up as it will have a negative affect on other benefits, such as Tax Credits. Most parents have been receptive of the supplementary charges."

"General opinion from our parents is that the initiative has not received the right level of publicity and they feel support has been poor and limited from HMRC and the LA’s."

"HMRC have provided codes to a number of parents of two-year-olds and then withdrawn them, telling them they are actually not eligible."

"Some parents have been given a temporary code as they have been waiting since April for their code to come through."

"Most parents have been fine and appear to have received their codes."

"Parents feel that it has been falsely advertised. It isn’t free at all they say."

"We have imputed the codes and eligibility has been authorised only to find the codes have already or will soon expire."

"Parents with problems are not getting the appropriate telephone support, we have a number of very annoyed parents.We have tried to help them where we can, sitting and assisting them to access the HMRC website in nursery, it’s definitely been a lot of extra work."

It’s early days yet and we will keep plugging away. I’m sure you’d like to join me in thanking all the brilliant managers, LA support personnel and practitioners for making this work. To the Pre-school Learning Alliance and other groups such as Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding for their continued work on behalf of the sector and finally, to those patient and understanding parents trying to navigate the systems to obtain their code!

Onward and Upward.

  • This comment piece is the personal viewpoint of Cary Rankin.
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