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Free childcare: Nurseries inundated with calls, as parents don’t realise support is years away

A group of nurseries in Manchester says it has been inundated by requests to take up free childcare hours after Thursday's Budget announcement

Some nurseries have been inundated with requests from parents about free childcare hours unaware that the Government’s new policy would not be fully rolled out until 2025.

Earlier this week, Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced a £4.1 bn expansion in free childcare hours for children aged between nine months and two years to be rolled out in stages over the next two years. This extends the current system of 30 hours of free childcare for three- and four-year-olds.

From April 2024, eligible working parents of two-year-olds will receive 15 hours of free childcare and from September 2024 this will be extended for children aged between nine months and two years. The full expansion of 30 hours of free childcare to all under-fives will not come into effect until 2025.

Andrew Howarth, director of Paint Pots Nurseries, which has three sites – two in Manchester and one in Cheshire – said calls started coming in from parents wanting to take up the free hours on Wednesday night, shortly after the Budget announcement.

By early Thursday morning, the three centres had taken multiple phone calls and emails from parents – and these had only increased by the afternoon, Mr Howarth said.

“People are thinking it’s starting right now, like Monday. You can understand the eagerness I mean a lot of people just read the headline or the tagline, without seeing the detail.

“Basically, we are telling them we will keep them updated of course, but there’s nothing we can offer them at the moment.”

Parents were “disappointed” when they found out the new policy would not begin to take effect for another year and not fully for another two years, he said.

Mr Howarth said the way the policy has been reported and promoted by the Government has left many parents confused.

“They have no idea this is a long way off and actually may never be implemented, depending on the result of the next general election,” he said.

Karen Simpkin, owner of Sunflower Childrens Centre in Sheffield, said she had to tell a few of the parents the help would not be available immediately.

“All these parents that had babies in here already were getting rather excited and we had to tell them to have a lie down and a cup of tea,” she said.

“In the Budget they said they were trying to get people back into work but then they turn around and say ‘not for another year or 18 months’.”

Ms Simpkin said she was concerned that by the time the policy came into effect, more nurseries would have closed, which will in turn lead to a sharp increase in the demand for places.

“The costs we have are absolutely horrendous, so we are all putting our fees up. Most nurseries thought Hunt would be an absolute star in the Budget but he wasn’t.”

After the Budget announcement, nurseries warned they may have to increase the price of unfunded childcare hours, nappies, food or trips for parents if the new expanded entitlement was not funded for properly.

The Early Years Alliance also said the provision of £204m for 2023-2024 and £288m for 2024-2025 was not enough to cover the existing deficit for nurseries carrying the current free childcare hours – estimated by some to be at £1.82bn.

Wages, building, energy, and food costs were putting pressure on nurseries and Ms Simpkin did not think what was provided was enough to save nurseries.

She said: “They are talking in millions but that’s got to be divided by how many settings, and how many children in each setting around the country.”

Budget 2023

What the budget actually means for your money, from childcare and pensions, to tobacco and fuel.

Budget announcements included the promise of 30 hours of free childcare for children above 9 months – but staggered until September 2025. There was also a surprise abolition of the lifetime allowance limit on pension savings, duty on pub pints being frozen and a tobacco duty increase taking the price of an average 20-pack of cigarettes from £10.65 to £11.80.

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