Free childcare scheme questioned as fees rise

The government’s flagship free childcare scheme is being questioned again as it is revealed that more than half of private nurseries have increased their fees in the past year.

New Department for Education figures show that 53 per cent of private nurseries in England have put up their fees in the past 12 months, along with 28 per cent of school nurseries and 25 per cent of childminders. Experts are also predicting further rises as nursery owners struggle to make up the shortfall caused by insufficient funding for a flagship government policy.

Under the Tory pledge, parents of three- and four-year-olds can claim 30 hours of childcare a week during term time, equalling 38 weeks a year, for free, even if each parent earns up to £100,000. First announced in 2017, nurseries and childminders have continuously warned that the level of government funding allocated has been insufficient and could even leave many childcare providers with no choice but to raise fees, charge parents for ‘extras’ or go bust.

The government figures, analysed by the Labour Party, suggest that half of the parents who took up the offer, believing they would receive free childcare, are now being asked by their provider to pay additional charges, such as for lunches, snacks, special activities and outings. Excluding such charges, 48 per cent of parents eligible for the funding are still having to pay at least some fees each term, totalling £76.50 per week on average.

Although the government originally promised the offer would save working parents up to £5,000 a year per child, the research indicates that it is predominantly better-off families who are benefiting from the extra £1 billion a year set aside by the government to fund free childcare. Although 58 per cent of families who earn £45,000 or more have taken up the offer, only 26 per cent of those earning under £20,000 have done so.

Tracy Brabin, Labour’s Shadow Early Years Minister, said: “The Tories’ flagship offer simply isn’t living up the promises they made in the election, and the consequences are being felt by parents across the country. Fees are rising, free places come with hidden costs, and too many families aren’t eligible for the support they need – while nurseries and other providers are being pushed to the brink of bankruptcy.”