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Voices: What’s the use of free childcare if daycare centres are already full?

Free childcare sounds good on paper – and during an election campaign – but the reality is very different  (PA)
Free childcare sounds good on paper – and during an election campaign – but the reality is very different (PA)

Free childcare? To any working mum’s ears, those have to be the two sweetest words in the English language.

The government seems to be on a sugar high about its latest family initiative, too. The education secretary Gillian Keegan has spent the day skidding around various TV and radio newsrooms, telling anyone who’ll listen about the “largest expansion of childcare in our country's history”.

From today, parents in England are entitled to 15 hours a week of free childcare for their two-year-olds. Prior to the scheme’s introduction, only working parents of three- and four-year-olds qualified for the 15-to-30 hours of childcare funded by the government.

Rishi Sunak called it a “positive and exciting moment”, while Keegan said 150,000 families had already registered to take advantage. To qualify for the new free hours, most parents must earn more than £8,670 a year, but less than £100,000.

You might imagine Mumsnet is universally jumping up and down for joy – but that would be because they have not yet read the small print.

The idea of free childcare sounds like utter heaven, but the reality is very different, as I know only too well.

The government hopes that the scheme will help get parents back to work. Considering the government wants everybody working – even if you can barely stand up – this mission is not surprising. But the rollout is expected to cause a surge in demand for childcare places… and critics of the scheme say there are just not enough places to meet demand.

I’m not complaining. Fifteen hours “free” childcare a week is nice – better than a kick in the teeth – but it isn’t nearly enough on its own to hold down a “proper”, full-time job. And, here’s the thing: it isn’t actually free, either.

What the government is calling “free childcare” is just vouchers to put towards the cost, and for mums like me, it hardly touches the sides

Sadly, the truth is this: there is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to childcare. Unless you have a willing grandma or a very rich house-husband parked at home from 8am until 7pm daily – which I didn’t – free childcare is a total fantasy. As a single mum of two young daughters, Lola and Liberty, now 5 and 7, I could only afford to work part-time even with my 15, and then 30, “free” hours at preschool.

Once maternity leave is over, mums like me end up clinging desperately to our careers. It’s no longer about climbing the career ladder but suffering in silence because you can’t have preschool kids and work without tearing your hair out. How are we meant to do the juggle? Give our kids the love and attention while trying to pay soaring childcare and nursery bills? We can’t – it’s as simple as that.

What the government is calling “free childcare” is just vouchers to put towards the cost – and for mums like me, it hardly touches the sides, especially when you live in one of the most expensive boroughs in the country. When the average cost of full-time nursery – that’s 50 hours a week – for a child under two in the UK is set to reach £15,709 this year, I hardly need to pull out a calculator to work out the excess amount on the nursery school’s end of term invoice if I work full-time.

The charity Pregnant Then Screwed found that 23 per cent of parents couldn’t afford to access free childcare hours because of “top-up fees”, such as meals, nappies, extra-curriculum activities and kids’ sunscreen (which costs far more than you’d credit, and you get through more than you’d imagine).

Another mum I spoke to admitted that she found it impossible to find any free (or even affordable) place in a nursery in Kensington and Chelsea for the 15 hours she can claim for her three-year-old. When she complained that the “free childcare” wasn’t, in fact, free at all – merely money-off vouchers – the local council admitted to her that it is bound to be harder to find affordable nurseries, given that hers is “one of the most expensive boroughs in the country to live in”.

“I must say that I could not find free or even affordable place,” Ivana* tells me. “The closest daycare to me offered me a place, but only in the region of £700 per term, which would mean I would still have to pay two-thirds of the cost – which is hardly ‘paying the difference’. I find this situation rather disappointing.”

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson has refused to commit Labour to the government’s childcare plan if it wins the next general election – which looks highly likely – because, quite frankly, she does not believe the necessary spaces will be available. So then what happens? Do all the two-year-olds have to be shipped off back to us mums who might have actually been able to focus on our careers for five minutes?

By the time the expanded scheme is completely rolled out in September 2025, demand for childcare places will have reportedly risen 15 per cent – that’s more than 100,000 extra children fighting for full-time care. It’s going to get ugly. Social media is already full of mums saying their local centres are full, and vouchers aren’t going to help them get a place.

Another mum told me she is trying to get her two-year-old into a London nursery school, but it’s hard to get her child a place that young because, she was told, “two-year-olds require more staff, as the ratio of children-to-teachers is smaller – so they need more teachers, which costs more, and they’re difficult to find”. So it’s also a staffing issue.

According to Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, many nurseries have had “no choice” but to limit the number of new funded places they offer. This means that tons of parents who are accessing a place for the first time are finding it difficult, “if not impossible, to do so”, he claims.

It’s meaningless to promise this utopia of free childcare to us mums if it is only going to be a car crash. No wonder the minister, during her interview round today, didn’t want to linger on the practicalities – of how hard it to find affordable daycare.

I was lucky. In the end, my dad stepped in to help with childcare costs, but other mums might not get family handouts. One thing is for sure: 15 hours of free childcare will cost you a lot more than you think.

*Name has been changed