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‘I’m trapped’: The parents losing out on free childcare amid nursery space shortage

The Government’s rollout of additional free childcare for working parents begins next week – but parents are struggling to find places

Parents are still missing out on free childcare for two-year-old children, despite the new Government scheme launching next week, as they are unable to find nursery places.

The Early Years Alliance told i a shortage of places are being reported by childcare providers across the country as they struggle to accommodate the rollout.

Working parents of two-year-olds will be eligible for 15 hours of free childcare from April, which will be extended down to the age of nine months in September.

The provision will increase to 30 hours in September 2025 to match the existing plan for three and four-year-olds.

One mother told i she has had to reduce her working hours because she could only find one day of free childcare for her two-year-old son while another said the funding does not go far enough.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has said the rollout would allow more parents to go back to work, boost workforce participation and increase economic growth.

But Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said childcare providers “just don’t have enough staff” to cope with the expansion, leaving parents without places.

“Recruitment and retention is a massive issue,” he said. “We had that problem with existing entitlements, so it’s absolutely no surprise that parents are being challenged, and it’s likely to get worse.”

He said the sector has faced record closures and is struggling to accommodate increased demand from parents looking for funded places.

Ofsted figures show 3,320 of 62,300 nurseries and childminders for under-fives in England closed in the year to August 2023, meaning 17,800 fewer childcare places.

Some nurseries are also putting up prices for the remaining hours which are not funded by the Government to make up for how little they are paid for the free hours, Mr Leitch added. Others are simply unable to afford to offer funded places.

The average cost for a full time place for a two-year-old was £14,765 a year in 2023, according to Coram Family and Childcare.

Even though the Government has raised the rate it pays nurseries, Mr Leitch said it has not gone far enough to compensate for chronic underfunding historically.

Joeli Brearley, chief executive of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, said parents are seeing a “deterioration in provision” and “price hikes” ahead of the rollout.

Nearly two-thirds of parents surveyed by the group said they had seen price rises in the last six months. Almost a third said prices had gone up by at least 8 per cent.

One in five parents said they have left their jobs, are considering doing so, or reducing their hours because they cannot afford to work.

‘I’m totally trapped’

Lauren Nimmo, 33, has had to scale back her return to work because she was only able to find free childcare for one day a week for her two-year-old.

“I’m totally trapped,” she said. “I would have loved to have gone back a couple of days a week, but it’s just impossible.”

Ms Nimmo, who lives in Shipston-on-Stour in Warwickshire, also has one-year-old twins.

The cost of paying for the three children would be higher than that she would earn if she went back to her full-time job as a primary school teacher.

Instead, she is working one day a week following her maternity leave.

Even though her twins will be eligible for 15 hours of free childcare from September, her nursery has already indicated that they do not think they will have the infrastructure to offer those places.

“There’s just no incentive for parents to work because it all ends up being so expensive,” she said. “It’s really frustrating.”

The funded hours are only applicable for 9am to 3pm at her nursery so she still needs to pay for extra care to cover the periods before and afterwards, which is known as wraparound care.

Ms Nimmo and Ms Golding (left to right) say access to affordable childcare is still a barrier to working (Pic: supplied)
Ms Nimmo and Ms Golding (left to right) say access to affordable childcare is still a barrier to working (Photos: Supplied)

‘15 hours do not go far enough’

For Jodie Golding, the funded hours available do not go far enough.

Her son will be turning two in August. The nursery she was hoping to send him and her daughter, who will be three in April, has said they will not have support for two-year-olds at all.

Even if she gets a place, the funding will be too low to allow her to go back to work full-time.

Ms Golding, a 29-year-old single mum in Reading, has had to quit her job as a departmental manager in the NHS because she was not allowed to go back part-time.

“The whole system around women is so broken and there is definitely not enough support for women returning from maternity leave,” she said.

She has had to drop down two salary bands to go back to being a medical secretary.

“I’ve worked really hard to get where I am,” she said. “I’ve had to just basically go back because of the fact that I’ve got kids and I can’t work full time.”

How to claim free childcare hours

Applications for working parents of two-year-olds to receive free childcare starting in April 2024 are open until March 31.

From April 1 to August 31, parents of two-year-olds will be able to apply for childcare starting in September 2024.

On May 12, applications will extend to parents with children aged nine and up.

The Government issues codes which need to be renewed every three months, so anyone applying close to May 12 will need to renew their code before their offer begins in September.

It can take up to 7 days for your application to be approved.

Once you receive your code, you can take it to your childcare provider.

Your local authority can provide support in finding a funded place in your area, according to the Government’s website.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “We are confident in the strength of our childcare market as we deliver the largest ever expansion in childcare in England’s history and every local authority nationally is currently meeting its statutory duty to secure sufficient numbers of childcare places.

“We have significantly increased our childcare rates and provided £100m in capital support to grow the sector – which has already seen over 40,000 more places in the past five years alone.”

Original Article

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