NURSERY bosses across Lancashire have been thrown into ‘crisis’ over controversial free childcare arrangements.
From next September, parents will be entitled to up to 30 hours of free childcare each week, when new government plans come into force.
Eligible families – where both parents work with a combined wage of less than £100,000 – will see their free allowance increased from the current 15 hours, for children aged three and four.
The scheme aims to allow parents to return to work, with take-up expected to be high across the county.
But the vast majority of childcare in Lancashire is provided by private organisations, and nursery bosses still don’t know the full implications of the new scheme.
Sarah Carr, chairman of the National Day Nursery Association, and director of Ashbridge Independent School and Nursery in South Ribble, said childcare providers were already facing “crisis time”, and didn’t yet know how many extra parents would take up the offer.
She said nurseries were currently under-funded in relation to the 15 hours currently offered, and said: “Year on year, private nurseries have subsidised those funded hours.
“It’s met by additional hours that other parents buy. It’s completely unfair on the parents who have additional hours, or who aren’t entitled to funding.
“The 30 hours just absolutely exacerbates the problem even more.”
Sarah said the funding rates for the free hours were yet to be finalised, but said they were not expected to improve the situation dramatically for nurseries.
She said: “Where they have done the trials, they are saying the only way this is going to work is accepting the money that covers the cost of delivering a very basic service
“But the nurseries then have to be allowed to charge for additional things they offer like meals and qualified teachers and other activities, way above a basic offer.
“So parents have to choose. If they came to us, they would get 30 hours but the funding would partially pay for our services.
“There would be clear individual costs for the extras we provide like the flexible hours, the 52 weeks a year, the three cooked meals a day, the qualified teachers.”
She said that system would make it “fairer” for parents, and said: “One of the complaints at the moment is it’s not fair because some children are subsidising other children.”
Lancashire has more than 2,000 “childcare settings”, and Sarah said: “Parents will have to choose a setting based on what they want.
“If they want a setting that provides full flexibility of hours, cooked meals, they then accept that setting may cost more than others.”
She said there was already a shortage of places in Lancashire, and said nurseries could not be forced to take part in the 30-hour scheme.
She said: “When they realise what the rate of pay is, they with then decide whether they are going to offer the 30 hours.
“Some nurseries hopefully will expand, but they will only be able to if they know they can cover the costs by charging rates that cover them.
“They will have to charge for the extra services they provide.”
Sarah said it was not yet known whether the sector would see a “massive increase” in demand, or whether parents already working would simply increase the hours they received for free.
She also said nurseries had to set their fees for next year and prepare for the changes from September, with the funding rates still not confirmed.
She said nurseries faced “crisis time” with increases in payments of the national living wage, business rates and pension contributions, and said: “Nursery bosses have got to be able to reflect in the charges the true cost of providing these services, or the whole sector will be unsustainable.”
She added: “There’s a real willingness in the sector to meet these demands from parents. We want to deliver that and we want parents to access that subsidy for childcare, but it does need to cover the cost of delivery.”
While County Hall bosses don’t manage the sector, they are working with childcare providers to help them prepare for the changes. The authority has discussed the plans for the increased hours.
Alison Kenny, Lancashire County Council’s early education and learning improvement lead, told the County Council’s Education Scrutiny Committee: “We expect the take-up of this will be really high, as the criteria is quite wide.”
She said: “It is difficult because we work with the sector, we don’t manage the sector because they are businesses and organisations.
“But we are working with the sector to help them prepare. We’ve also got six capital bids in with central government, which we find out (in December) if they are successful to try to help.”
Officers were asked whether the move would mean the same volume of childcare was offered but for free, or whether there would be a greater volume of care offered.
Alison Kenny said: “This is an entitlement for anyone within that criteria.
“And we envisage this will grow the market because people who at the minute can’t go back to work, we think will go back to work.”
She added: “The uncertainty is because we don’t know at the moment the rates at which they are going to be funded.”
County Coun Lizzi Collinge asked if any feedback had been given by the childcare sector about funding rates, and Alison Kenny said: “I think it’s watch this space.
“They are waiting for that before they make a final decision. Until they know that rate, it’s not really known whether it’s going to be viable.”