Parents may ‘miss out’ on childcare offer in April due to funding uncertainty

Parents could “miss out” on the Government’s flagship childcare offer in April as many councils have not yet published the funding rates needed by settings, early years leaders have warned.

Families are “in limbo” as many nurseries, pre-schools and childminders in England are still unable to confirm whether they can offer places under the Government’s new 15 hours of funded childcare scheme for two-year-olds.

Some local authorities are not planning to confirm their final funding rates with childcare providers until March, which could mean eligible parents may not benefit from the Government’s scheme in April.

Eligible working parents have been able to apply for the scheme since the start of January, but many remain in the dark over whether their preferred setting will actually offer a funded place when it starts in just over two months’ time.

One leader of a pre-school – who described the situation as “dire” – has decided not to offer the scheme to parents in April as the local authority is not publishing the funding rates needed to budget until March.

Bianca Gaubert, manager and owner of Brick By Brick Pre-School in Beckenham, south-east London, told the PA news agency: “To provide the two-year-old working parents’ funding from April will actually be an impossibility. I’m not committing myself to anything with that limited timescale.”

She added: “The phone has been ringing off the hook (from parents). But I can’t go in blind and say ‘yes, yes, yes’ when I don’t even know what the funding amount will be.”

Findings from a PA survey suggest that final funding rates required by early years settings have not been published in a number of areas across England.

As of Wednesday morning, only six of 20 local authorities in England, which responded to requests for information by PA, said they had sent out their final funding rates to providers.

Some local authorities have issued proposed funding rates to settings but they have not yet been formally approved, while others have not started the consultation process on rates.

Bedford Borough Council told PA it will begin consulting its early years settings on funding rates next week – and it expects to share the confirmed rates in early March.

Meanwhile, Sandwell Council in the West Midlands and West Berkshire Council do not plan to confirm final funding rates with providers until mid-March – just weeks before the scheme starts.

On Wednesday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer criticised the Government’s record on free childcare as he questioned why parents are being told they will not get the funded hours promised by the Prime Minister.

It came after Rishi Sunak insisted that all eligible children in England will be able to benefit from the childcare reforms being phased in from the spring.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced in March 2023 that some families of children as young as nine months will be able claim 30 hours of free childcare a week.

Under the plans, working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare from April. This will be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September.

From September 2025, working parents of children under five will be entitled to 30 hours’ free childcare per week.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance (EYA), said: “This policy is a prime example of Government’s ‘announce first, think later’ approach to the early years – and once again it is providers and families who are paying the price.”

He added: “It is unthinkable that we are just weeks away from one of the biggest early years expansions of modern times, and yet many nurseries, pre-schools and childminders still haven’t actually been told what funding rate they will be given to deliver these new places.

“How on Earth is Government expecting providers to be able to budget and plan without this critical information?

“As a result, many settings still aren’t in a position to confirm whether or not they’ll offer places under the new two-year-old scheme, leaving both them and parents in limbo – and in some cases, providers may decide to opt out of the offer entirely, meaning that parents miss out on the offer altogether.”

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of the National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said the organisation is concerned that the “vast majority of nurseries do not yet know their funding rates” for offering funded places from April because childcare providers need to plan ahead.

She said: “We know there are a significant number of nurseries who are still undecided about whether they can offer the new two-year-old places and, if they can, how many they can afford to offer because they do not have their funding rates yet.

“Councils have until the end of March to publish their funding rates. If they leave it this late, the result could be that a number of nurseries may not be able to offer places at all from April or reduce the number of places they can offer.

“We know that many can’t supply sufficient places to satisfy local demand so, yes, it’s likely some children may miss out on a place.”

During an urgent question on childcare in the Commons on Monday, children and families minister David Johnston said he would reserve the right to “name and shame” local authorities who have yet to publish their funding rates.

Louise Gittins, chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Children and Young People Board, said: “The LGA and councils have repeatedly raised concerns regarding the timelines for the Government to publish information to councils.

“Local authorities have a series of internal processes to work through before they can announce funding rates to providers and are moving through these as quickly as possible.

“Unfortunately, information for local authorities and providers has only recently been made available by central Government and this has left them with little time to ensure the practical arrangements are in place to expand before the start of the April rollout.

“Local authorities should not be scapegoated for Government delays and subsequent challenges for the expansion.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “We are rolling out the single-largest expansion in childcare in England’s history, ensuring working parents receive 30 hours of free childcare a week, starting at nine months old all the way up to their child starting school.

“Thousands of parents are accessing codes and securing places every day, and we are confident in the strength of the market to deliver the offers, thanks to our £204 million cash boost last September and more than £400 million in April to create more places and help more families make savings.

“We published local authority hourly funding rates in November, now local authorities need to confirm rates for providers in their areas.

“A number have already done so, and we expect the remainder to confirm their rates in the coming weeks.”