Whatever they say childcare is never free

Guest blogger Adam Lanigan gets frustrated by the way the 30 hours of free childcare is framed and what it really means for working parents.

childcare is never free


Every month when we receive our latest bill from our daughter’s nursery, the top line tells us our cumulative total from the entire time she has been attending. Given that she has been going for three days a week for getting on for two-and-a-half years, that figure is now quite substantial and occasionally very soul-destroying. There it is in black and white. It’s easy to imagine things with which that money could have been spent. But no, it is for someone else to look after my child so I can work.

That’s why I had to smile, or more realistically, shout at the new Chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, when he was talking about the budget and the plan to have every child in the country eligible for 30 hours ‘free’ childcare from the age of nine months by September 2025.

As a parent of a nursery-school age child, let me warn any parents or prospective parents that ‘free’ childcare is a myth. The only kind of ‘free’ childcare is if we can persuade grandparents to have our children for a day or two.

Nurseries are not schools. They are not run by the state. By and large, they are privately-run enterprises that are designed to provide a service to look after the children of working parents, and (this part is very important) to make money. The staff in these places are generally some of the most kind, caring and patient people you could meet but they all need to be paid for what they do. We love the nursery where our children have attended but we recognise that we are paying for a service.

When our son turned three, there was excitement as we expected nursery bills to come tumbling down to basically nothing. How naïve we were! There were 30 ‘free’ hours, but there was still a daily charge to cover food, trips, additional classes and activities that a nursery has. Yes, it was greatly reduced but it was not an insignificant amount. As someone who has worked with words for two decades, I understand their value and ‘free’ sounds a whole lot more worthy of our attention than ‘subsidised’. Think of the headline, ‘Who wants a free dinner?’ It’s much more attention-grabbing than ‘who wants a dinner for a greatly subsidised price?’

The other thing to understand is that free hours are not granted for 52 weeks a year. They are limited to term time, pretty much on the same lines as state schools. Some nurseries choose to spread the cost of money they receive from the government over the whole year. Ours does not. In certain months with ‘free’ hours included, we pay around 30% of the full price. And while 30% is a whole lot better than 100%, it is certainly not zero. Then during the school holidays, the price shoots back up to 100%, making for a difficult decision about when to take a family holiday to match school and nursery demands.

Of course, I like to think I’ve been around long enough to understand that Governments like catchy slogans and this one is certainly one of them. But the pressure is most definitely on to deliver. To promise ‘free’ childcare for another two years of children is a vast undertaking. It will require huge investment, more nurseries and more staff to work in them. Nurseries have staff to pay, and bills and upkeep that require constant attention and are only heading in one direction.

Looking at the bigger picture, the cost of childcare is only going to get higher and higher just to meet this ‘free’ demand that the Government wants to implement, without even factoring in energy costs, inflation and staff wages.

Some parents have already had to make the difficult decision of giving up work because they cannot make childcare costs work. Those numbers could escalate if unrealistic demands are placed on nurseries by the Government to provide more ‘free’ hours, as parents decide that the only possible kind of ‘free’ childcare is doing it themselves. And that is without considering the difficulties that nurseries are facing. It is believed that nurseries are already losing an average of £2 per hour, per child from the free hours given to three and four-year olds.

Over 5,000 nurseries have been forced to close in the last year as the number just don’t add up for them. The system is on the point of collapse even before these new ‘free’ hours are factored in.

Many parents have had to choose between working or childcare. Soon the ones that have been able to do both may have no choice in terms of childcare providers. It is a situation where it feels like there is no positive outcome.

Read more:

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