Last week a fairly mammoth conversation took place on our internal work messaging system. It’s not the first time that this topic of conversation has cropped up but it was the most in-depth and rather revealing exchange to date. In fact it was so interesting that I promptly informed Ste all about the ins and outs of our chat when he got home later that evening. And the subject of our discussion? Well I’m sure it’s a topic that’s cropped up all too often in your own lives too…the cost of childcare!

I don’t mind admitting that the amount that Ste and I spend on Hector’s childcare each month is equivalent to our monthly mortgage payments. In fact writing that makes me wince a little bit, although I know from conversations held with other mums that Hector’s nursery is very reasonably priced indeed. Please don’t misunderstand me, this post isn’t about to venture down a path where I start complaining about whether I think charging such amounts is justifiable or not – personally I think what Ste and I fork out is worth very penny – but that’s not to say that my eyes don’t water slightly every time the bill comes through.

I knew vaguely that there was some form of financial help for childcare costs once Hector turned three but that was about the long and short of it. And then when I asked friends and the RMLtd girls what the deal was, each and every one of them said something different. Which posed the question… how much childcare financial help was I actually entitled to? How did it work? Where did I apply for such help?

Today’s post then is written with the intention of clearing things up a bit (with the guidance of Hector’s nursery bursar I should add!) so that if any of you are wondering what help is available then this might be useful to you. I should also caveat the below with the fact that I’m not an expert and that if you are unsure about the intricacies of how the scheme works at your own childcare provider then it’s worth asking them for more details.

Ok so let’s look at the cold hard facts…

What The Government Say
  • All 3 to 4-year-olds in England can get 570 hours of free early education or childcare per year. It’s usually taken as 15 hours a week for 38 weeks of the year.
  • Some 2-year-olds are also eligible.
  • The date you can start claiming depends on your child’s birthday. You will be able to start claiming for financial help from the beginning of the term on or after their third birthday. For example Hector turns three in October so we wouldn’t be able to claim until the Spring Term commences i.e. January 2018.
  • The free early education and childcare must be with an approved childcare provider.
  • It stops once your child starts reception class in a state school.
The Reality

Hector attends nursery for three mornings and one longer day a week. Initially I thought that the free 15 hours would just be deducted from the sum total of the number of hours a week that he attends but having chatted with the Nursery Bursar it appears that it’s not quite as simple as it first appears.

At Hector’s particular nursery, funding is awarded in 2.5 hour blocks which can be applied to one session in the morning and one session in the afternoon. Therefore if Hector for example attended 4 mornings a week from January 2018, he would be entitled to just 10 hours of funding (four morning sessions i.e. 4 x 2.5 hours). However, if Hector attended for 3 full days or more he would receive all 15 hours of funding (5 hours per day).

But this isn’t necessarily the case for everyone. According to educational charity, the Pre-school Learning Alliance, the true cost to provide the childcare is typically £4.53 per hour but the Government currently allocates £3.53, an underfunding of 20%. And average childcare costs vary wildly all over the country depending on geographic location; for example what Fern pays for Elle’s childcare is very different to what Laura forks out for Bertie’s.

However from April, the Department for Education (DfE) is introducing a new approach to early years funding for three- and four-year-olds to try to make the way that funding is distributed between different local authorities and different providers fairer. If you want to find out the funding rates in your local area then The Pre-School Learning Alliance have a handy calculator on their site.

In short though I wanted to make it clear that 15 free hours of childcare doesn’t necessarily equate to 15 clear cut hours at your own childcare provider. I would strongly recommend speaking to your nursery/childminder/playgroup to find out how it would work for you and what you’re entitled to.

What About The Proposed Increase To 30 Hours?

You may have heard that that the Government intends to double the amount of free childcare to 30 hours and will roll this scheme out across the country later this year. It’s worth mentioning that this 30 hours free childcare applies only to 38 weeks per year and not 52 weeks.

The Government has been rolling out a pilot scheme in 8 English areas: Wigan, Staffordshire, Swindon, Portsmouth, Northumberland, York, Newham and Hertfordshire. The scheme is scheduled to go nationwide later this year in September.

Will my child get the 30 Free Hours?

Not necessarily as not everyone is eligible. But everyone will still receive the 15 hours free childcare that is currently available.

Eligibility rules for 30 hours free childcare:

  • Your child will be aged 3 or 4 when the scheme starts in your area.
  • Both parents must be working – or the sole parent is working in a lone parent family.
  • Each parent earns, on average, a weekly minimum equivalent to 16 hours at National Minimum Wage or National Living Wage.
  • Each parent must have an annual income of less than £100,000.
  • You must live in England.

Will all nurseries offer this?

Most will – but some nurseries may not be able to offer the flexible 30 hours free childcare.

The 30-hour scheme, like the universal 15-hour offer, is optional and the government has confirmed that providers will not be penalised for opting out. Providers who opt not to deliver the 30-hour scheme can continue to deliver the existing 15-hour offer.

Providers can offer the extended entitlement in part (i.e. less than 30 hours but more than 15 hours). Similarly, parents do not have to take up the full 30 hours – if an eligible parent wants to take up, for example, 22 hours per week, these will still be funded.

The nursery industry has expressed their concern that the grant supplied by the Government is not enough to cover the costs of the current scheme. So while nurseries can’t charge for the 30 hours, they can charge for other ‘extras’ or ask for contributions such as to cover the costs of nappies/lunches/activities.

At the moment Hector’s nursery have not decided if they will be participating in the 30 hour scheme despite committing to the 15 hour provision. Fingers crossed they will!

If you want to read more about either the 15 hour or the 30 hour childcare schemes then I would strongly recommend heading over to the Childcare Costs page on the Government website which you can read here or head over to Pre-School Learning Alliance for more in-depth detail.

I hope today’s post has helped to clarify how both schemes work; please feel free to chip in if you think I have missed anything important. Do any of you currently claim help with your childcare costs? How does it work for you? Are you in a pilot area and will you be taking advantage of the 30 free hours on offer? Did you even know that this help was available? From a personal perspective I can’t say that I think much about the promotion of either scheme. In my opinion more exposure is required to make parents aware of the financial help on offer to them. I’d love to hear what you have to say….