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15 "free" hours of childcare

(152 Posts)
jdey1969 Sat 23-Mar-13 07:57:30

My son attends a nursery in Wimbledon. The term after he turned 3 years old, we received a reduced invoice from the nursery. However, I worked out that the reduced amount wasn't enough of a reduction for us to truly be getting 15 free hours. I queried this with the nursery and was told that they only reduce the bill by the amount that they receive from the Council, and not by the normal hourly rate that they charge. This is in effect a top up fee, which is forbidden.

I escalated my complaint to Merton Council who told me that if I persisted with my complaint, the nursery might be forced to close and then I'd have no childcare. I persisted in any case, as I don't like being threatened and complained directly to the Department of Education about Merton colluding with the nursery to find a loophole in the law i.e. by creating a 2-tier fee structure, they can claim they're not charging "top up fees".

Merton Council have now concluded a 3 month investigation. Merton Council have said that as the nursery only publish weekly and monthly fees, my conclusion that the hourly rate was simply the weekly rate/60 was not correct. Merton Council were satisfied that the nursery were refunding the amount that Merton had paid them (using the local funding formula) to me, so I was receiving 15 "free" hours of childcare at that rate. A provider was entitled to charge what they liked above the "free" entitlement.

What this means is that the Council could decide that they'd only provide funding to a nursery of 1p per hour, in which case my 15 "free" hours would be worth 15p per week during term time. What it also means is that parents who put their children in nursery for more than 15 hours are actually subsidising the 15 free hour scheme, by paying a higher rate than normal for those extra hours.

For example, if say your nursery charged £5 per hour for your child when they are 3, and you have your child in nursery for 60 hours per week, your bill would be £300 per week. Now, when the 1st school term starts after they're 3, you'd expect the bill to come down to 45 hours * £5= £225 per week. However, with a 2-tier fee structure, your nursery can say you were mistaken in the belief that you wer being charged an hourly rate of £5 per hour, actually, we've never charged for the 1st 15 hours, but we charge £6.66 per hour for the hours above the 15 hours. Your invoice is still £300 per week.

I am waiting to see what action if anything that the Department of Education will take against Merton Council, but for the time being, the government's commitment to 15 free hours of childcare for 3 and 4 year olds is untrue. Parents could end up no better off than when their child wasn't receiving any "free" hours at all. At best, it could be described as 15 reduced (at your Council's discretion) hours for 3 and 4 year olds.

OddBoots Sat 23-Mar-13 08:04:16

I agree that it is wrong, and the biggest wrong is that the councils are advertising free hours when they don't pay enough to cover the costs. The settings aren't following the rules but they have a stark choice of either 'bending' the rules or just not running the scheme.

Sirzy Sat 23-Mar-13 08:04:47

I think you are taking a rather simplistic view expecting it to be the normal "hourly" cost (although every nursery I know of charges by the session not the hour anyway)

The 'free' is only for the childcare NOT for any meals/snacks or other extras so when you break it down that way then it isn't going to be as simple as dividing the rate down to get the 15 hours free value. As private nurseries set their own charges I think expecting them to fund beyond what they are given as they cost per child is asking a lot anyway - if they did that then others would end up subsiding your childs free.

The only time it generally works out as perfectly 15 hours without paying anything is if you send the child to a pre school were it is 5 mornings or 5 afternoons.

jdey1969 Sat 23-Mar-13 08:41:08

Well, I'm waiting to see what the Department of Education has to say about this.

It's obviously grossly misleading for the Government to claim that I'm entitled to 15 free hours of childcare for my 3 year old, if it actually amounts to 15 (reduced by however much your Council deems appropriate and the nursery decides to pass on) hours of childcare for my 3 year old.

As a parent, I don't have and shouldn't need to have an in-depth knowledge of the nursery's financial state. All businesses have costs, however. These costs are known by the nursery in advance, so they can budget for them.

OddBoots Sat 23-Mar-13 08:51:55

I wish you luck (and I mean that, I'm not being sarcastic), of course the nurseries know their costs but they can't reduce them and the government won't meet them. Around here free places are usually only accessed in church halls with fixed 3 hour sessions run by charities, private settings just can't afford it.

sundaymondaytuesday Sat 23-Mar-13 08:58:10

My youngest ds attends a private nursery and he will soon receive his free 15 hours. I have already been sent the fee information and it is quite clear that if he continues to attend for 3 hours per morning there will be no charge to me. I am actually going to increase his hours by an hour a day will increase the fees by £7.50 per day but they have not put me under any pressure to top-up.

One private nursery made a song and dance about having to close because they couldn't afford to stay open unless they charged top-up fees. I see they are still going strong...

nannynick Sat 23-Mar-13 08:59:21

Free education, not childcare. So there are periods of time when education is not provided but childcare is provided, such as lunchtimes.

YANBU to complain. It should be 15 hours, not an amount of money. However providers may close if they can not pay their bills, so the money side does get involved at some point, such as by very high costs for the times outside of the funded hours.

Good luck with your complaint, it does seem unfair of Merton to be siding with the nursery, rather than supporting the nursery with managing their finances.

jdey1969 Sat 23-Mar-13 09:08:11

They could simply increase their fees across the board, couldn't they. I really don't see the difference between a nursery and any other business.

As a parent, I don't know how much the government is paying the local Council to fund these places, nor do I know how much the local Council is paying the nursery. The government could be fully funding all of the places, and the Council just claiming they're not. The system is ridiculous. It should have been obvious from the start that the Councils and nurseries would take a slice on the way between Government and parent.

trixymalixy Sat 23-Mar-13 09:13:23

The way it operates here is that you are entitled to 5 x3 hour free sessions a week. If your child just goes for 5x 3 hour sessions in a private nursery then you won't pay any extra. That only operates in school term times though, not through the summer or other holidays.

If you send your child for the whole day then you have to pay the daily rate and they refund you the hourly funding amount which is less than the nursery's hourly rate. My DD is in nursery 2 days a week, so we can only use 4 sessions, not the full amount.

If you don't like it then you are perfectly entitled to use a council run nursery, but that's not really practical for us as they only open at 9 am and if you are wanting your child to stay in the whole day then you also need to pay extra on top.

I think you'll get nowhere tbh as all the nurseries will operate similar systems. The private nurseries don't have to allow funded places at all, so I'd just take what you get if I were you.

Littlefish Sat 23-Mar-13 09:14:23

Jedi - well done. I absolutely applaud you for your tenacity. The 15 hours should be free. Parents should be able to access those 15 hours free of any other charges. I feel really strongly that settings should either abide by the rules and spirit of the funding, or not offer the funding at all.

insancerre Sat 23-Mar-13 09:21:25

it's not free 'childcare' it's free 'education'
it's meant to benefit your child not reduce your childcare costs
do you really expect the nursery to subsidise your childcare bills?

Sirzy Sat 23-Mar-13 09:24:08

They could simply increase their fees across the board, couldn't they

And how exactly is that going to help working parents?

jdey1969 Sat 23-Mar-13 09:25:49

trixymalixy. So if you saw an advert in a newspaper saying £15 off any purchases over £60 at a supermarket this week, and they only give you £10 off at the till, you'd be quite happy if they explained that they can't give you the advertised amount because of costs in the chain between advertiser and the supermaket?

The point here is that I'm not getting what is advertised, so I'm going back to the advertiser (the government in this case) to complain, as I would if I was being ripped off with any other purchase.

trixymalixy Sat 23-Mar-13 09:26:12

But she can access the 15 hours free. She'll be able to drop her DC off every morning at 9 and pick them up at 12 or from 12-3 I bet without incurring any further charges.

In reality that's not practical for most working parents so they will have to pay for further childcare. The nursery is a business, not a charity so they can charge what they like. If you don't like it then vote with your feet. good luck with finding somewhere that operates the system differently.

scarlettsmummy2 Sat 23-Mar-13 09:31:53

My daughters nursery just deduct the £1500 or so the council gives them from their normal fees. Seems perfectly reasonable to me. If you don't like this just move to another nursery.

MrsHeggulePoirot Sat 23-Mar-13 09:34:20

But you do get 15 hours free if you are your child to a nursery attached to a school. I am in Merton and that is what we have. Nurseries are expensive and have differing rates per hour. You can expect Merton to pay whatever your private nursery charge - there is funding available which is, an should be the same rate per hour. If they pay say £3 per hour for state provision then you should get £15 of your bill. If you choose to send your child to a private nursery then in my opinion you are lucky to get any money off your childcare at all.

SneakyBiscuitEater Sat 23-Mar-13 09:34:31

We moved areas between DS and DD1 going to nursery. DS's nursery was attached to his primary school and he went mornings, other kids went for the afternoon. It was all free and very straightforward.

The area we are in now has no school based nursery classes at all, only private nurseries. We can't afford any top up fee for her nursery and so she does 3 hours a day, a mix of two mornings and three afternoons as that was the availability the nursery had. In order for us to incur no extra cost she takes a packed lunch/tea which she eats when the other children have their nursery meal and she does term time only. I was worried she would be left out by not having the same meals but neither she nor the other 3-4 year olds give a stuff.

Her nursery said they had not had anyone only doing the free hours before, most people topped up to fit in with work etc. We explained our situation and we came up with the packed lunch thing together. If we had had to pay we wouldn't have been able to send her so they would have lost out on the funding for her I guess?

jdey1969 Sat 23-Mar-13 11:03:33

Certainly for 2 year olds, the government says that they are paying local councils more than the normal nursery provider rate:-

Obviously, it's in local council's interests to say that they're not receiving adequate funding. Who to believe?

mrsbungle Sat 23-Mar-13 11:16:53

Interesting. Good for you challenging it. My dd goes to a private nursery 2 days per week.

I get the full 15 hours free. Her nursery do not count it in sessions, they just take 15 hours per week off my monthly bill.

daily rate is £42. They are open 10 hours per day so £4.20 per hour x 15 is taken off my bill each week.

cazzybabs Sat 23-Mar-13 11:27:38

Most nurseries round here don't offer the vouchers any more because of this!

You can get your 15 hours but you would have to go to a state nursery rather than a private nursery.

I would think private nurseries have different overheads to state nurseries.

nannynick Sat 23-Mar-13 14:13:29

Jdey, Merton: Early Years Funding, Provider Guide - worth reading some of the documents on this page, if not all of them. Did Merton already give you links to those when you complained - it's public info, so given the nature of your complaint I would have thought they would give you details of what they send to the childcare providers.

In the Terms&Conditions document, it gives the money values... I suspect the nursery would be in Band 2, though it depends if it is attached to a school. Band Two £3.85 (Childcare – more than 15 hr/wk and/or additional services purchased)

Read the Terms&Conditions document, Look at Appendix1, Annual Contract... I would wonder if the nursery has broken the contract - such as by not providing billing information clearly. Refer any concerns to the person detailed in the section titled Parent Concerns.

Hope that helps you take it further with Merton and DfE.

nannynick Sat 23-Mar-13 14:26:06

>Merton Council have now concluded a 3 month investigation. Merton Council have said that as the nursery only publish weekly and monthly fees, my conclusion that the hourly rate was simply the weekly rate/60 was not correct.

I do agree with the council in that respect. If the fees are given as monthly or weekly, then the yearly cost would include times which are unfunded. The funding only operates for certain weeks of the year (unless the provider is splitting things over a year). 60 is presumably the number of hours your child is in nursery per week.

The entitlement is 570 hours over a 1 year period (15 hours per week if spread over 38 weeks). Providers can do 11 hours per week over 50 weeks, for children who attend all year.

So if your child attends 60 hours a week, then if you deduct 11 hours from that, would the remaining hours at the usual nursery rate be what you are paying? Note: There may be additional payment for the other weeks in the year, depending on your contact with the nursery, as a year is not 50 weeks!

>Merton Council were satisfied that the nursery were refunding the amount that Merton had paid them (using the local funding formula) to me, so I was receiving 15 "free" hours of childcare at that rate.

But did the council say you were getting 570 hours of free education a year? That's the question really isn't it? As the nursery may be operating all year round, 15 hours is not the figure to look at, it's the annual hours.

>A provider was entitled to charge what they liked above the "free" entitlement.

Yes their usual nursery rates for everyone, regardless of if claiming any free entitlement, could be at at rate the nursery decides. Though it must apply to all parents, not just those accessing early years education entitlement. Least that is my understanding.

pizzaqueen Sat 23-Mar-13 14:42:08

It's not free childcare - it's preschool education.

Where I am you get 5x3hour sessions and can only use them in a state preschool, not a private childcare provider. You are very fortunate you can transfer the funding to your private nursery. In my local council this is not longer allowed and it going to cause us a big problem getting childcare to fit round working hours when my DS turns three.

I would let the issue lie personally otherwise you may find you are no longer able to use your funding at your chosen nursery.

forgottoremember Sat 23-Mar-13 16:37:28

It's all a total mess, as far as I can see!

According to my reading of the rules (have read them many times), you're absolutely in the right here, and your nursery and borough are blatantly and knowingly breaking the rules. This happens pretty much everywhere the costs of providing childcare at above the 'refund rate' the gvt gives.

The thing is, local councils have a duty to ensure 'sufficient childcare', and if they follow the rules, there's a good chance that some nurseries will close down. I think they're also very weak-kneed about this, and private nurseries lobby effectively for the preservation of a system that benefits them.

The nursery my children attend does everything by the book, and we genuinely get our free hours - 11.8/week, I think, as it's spread across more than the 38 funded weeks.

However, since there's a tiered fee system, according to ability to pay, ironically this means that the wealthiest 3 year olds get the largest discount (though they still pay more overall)...

(I can give you an even more egregious example of top-up fees than yours: there's a sessional nursery near us open for 3.75 hours/day, 38 weeks per year. It costs something like £35/day for 2 year olds. You'd expect - if the rules were being followed - that it would cost only £7/day once your child gets the free hours. But no, it's £25... what sort of a hourly rate should that work out as???!)

jdey1969 Sat 23-Mar-13 18:26:26

@nannynick. Yes, there were a number of complaints that I lodged with Merton Council about the nursery:-

i) The fees (I know it's only funded for term times by the way. I provided a simplified example otherwise it's quite confusing)

ii) Unclear billing (they were just providing a monthly fee without breakdown)

iii) Not asking us to fill out the parental declaration form

iv) The number of funded weeks wouldn't allow my son to get 570 free hours by the 1st anniversary

Merton Council's response was:-

i) The 1st 15 hours are funded at £3.70 (the rate that the council pays the nursery) and the remaining hours can be charged at any rate.

ii) They agree the billing is unclear and the nursery have been told to introduce an invoice which clearly shows the rate for the free hours and the rate for the unfunded hours

iii) Some parents including me weren't asked to fill out the parental declaration form. The nursery has been told to ensure that every parent is asked to fill out the declaration form each term in future.

iv) They are aware that Merton's previous manner of funding the early years by variable term time meant that some parents would receive more than 570 hours and some less than 570 hours and they're changing it in April so that all parents get 570 hours. They've promised I'll get 570 free hours in any case although how this will happen hasn't been clarified yet.

I was being charged a fixed fee every month, so I can work out the normal hourly rate from that and it's £5.05. The nursery is claiming that they charge £3.70 for the 1st 15 hours and £5.56 for any hours on top of that. The difference between those 2 rates can't be explained by telling me that my son's getting some food. That's £1.86 EVERY hour. He's not getting caviar for lunch.The other reason why I know that the nursery and the Council are lying over their claim that they've always had a 2-tier fee structure but just didn't advertise it, is that now that parents have received the new invoices, the fees they're being charged are different from what they were being charged on the old invoices. There are now a lot of angry parents.

I've read the terms & conditions that you linked to before lodging the complaint, but Merton did send me a copy in any case. The issue has been with the Department of Education since January, but they've had to wait for Merton to conclude their investigation. My local MP and the 3 councillors representing my ward are also on the case.

@pizzaqueen, the early years entitlement is funded for all 3 to 4 year olds, and the council have to ensure that there are sufficient places. If where you live there are sufficient places in schools then the Council has fulfilled it's obligation. However, most areas rely on private nurseries to provide some of the places. Sending your child to a private nursery is rather different from sending them to private school. State nurseries attached to schools are only open 15 hours per week which is only suitable for non-working parents. Private nurseries, nannies or childminders are a necessity for families where both parents work, not a luxury.

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