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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.

MrsHeggulePoirot Sat 23-Mar-13 21:04:56

And regardless of the rules, this comment:

"So for working parents, the 15 free hours should read "15 free hours for unemployed mums who want a break from their kids, which you'll be paying for, on top of all the other taxes that are paying for their other benefits".

Was still ridiculous and unnecessary.

Frankly it makes me hope your nursery withdraws from the scheme completely.

TiredFeet Sat 23-Mar-13 21:20:21

I don't have an issue with a private nursery charging top up. Where children are there all day, rather than just a few hours, you don't want the place to be run on a shoe string. I love that my sons nursery has very generous ratios (far better than minimum), highly qualified staff (who thanks to the ratios always seem calm and happy and very caring), a chef who sources all ingredients locally and cooks wonderful fresh food, and a vast garden and lots of great toys and resources. I wouldn't want them to be cutting costs left right and centre. I see the 'free' hours as a helpful contribution that makes life a little more affordable

Mandy21 Sat 23-Mar-13 21:37:42

Its tricky because the vast majority of private nurseries simply cannot afford to abide by the policy. The government hourly rate is about half of what my DD's nursery charges, so how can that stack up?

OP, apart from the financial issues, have you been happy with your son's care? I think for most parents, thats the most important factor and if their child's private nursery is great on every front apart from offering "free" hours, then parents accept the way they interpret the rules.

The alternative - lets face it the government isn't going to increase the amount it gives nurseries, is for nurseries simply to opt out of the scheme. The only places that will be able to offer the "free" hours will be the nurseries attached to schools / play group type places which offer 3 hours a day etc. For families where they need the extended day offered by a private nursery, there won't be any help at all.

jdey1969 Sat 23-Mar-13 21:53:25

@Mandy21. I don't have an issue with the nursery staff, just their financial department and the owner. I think the nursery's pretty good. I just believe in honesty.

I don't think any new points are coming up.

Either you believe that all 3 and 4 year olds should get 15 free hours per week, 38 weeks per year as per government policy,

or you believe:-

i) Only 3 and 4 year olds who attend a nursery attached to a state school should get it
ii) The government isn't funding the scheme adequately, so parents should just accept whatever the council/nursery feels like refunding

What is fascinating is that the UK has 1 of the highest nursery costs in the world, the government's subsidising it, yet nursery providers are apparantly all on the brink of bankruptcy. Something doesn't add up.

ceebeegeebies Sat 23-Mar-13 22:06:04

I am a bit confused by this as, in my experience, nurseries don't charge by the hour, they charge by the day.

For example, the private nursery I use charge £33 per day for a 3 year old. The nursery is open from 7am until 6pm so if your child went for the entire day, it would be £3 per hour. If your child wasn't dropped off until 9am and you picked them up at 4pm, it would be £4.70 per hour - a huge difference in price. So how can councils possibly say what an 'hour' is worth at any particular private nursery when it can actually vary between parents using the nursery depending on drop off/pick up times?

On that basis, I think it is only fair that the nursery just deduct the amount that they receive from the council (in my case this is £49 per week) - this makes it equitable for all parents regardless of how many hours your DC are actually there.

However, the nursery (under the previous management) did suddenly add £10 to the daily rate once a child turned 3 on the basis they required a qualified Early Years specialise which really pissed me off but what can you do other than move your settled child to another nursery? Fortunately they don't do that anymore!

ceebeegeebies Sat 23-Mar-13 22:11:04

I also meant to add that, technically, the hourly rate for DS2 to attend the nursery varies as I sometimes drop him off before 8, sometimes it is nearly 9 and the time I pick him up varies between 4 and 6 depending on would a council possible work out what an 'hour' is worth to me??

ExRatty Sat 23-Mar-13 22:22:47

None of the private nurseries near here will do it. They say it's more trouble than it is worth and to try somewhere else. Utterly useless

Mandy21 Sat 23-Mar-13 22:32:17

jdey I don't think the argument is as simple as that - yes, of course your argument is that the government is promising "free" hours, so all 3 or 4 yr olds should receive get it. The reality of the situation is that private nurseries are different. As you rightly pointed out at the beginning of a thread) private nurseries are businesses and most would have to run at a loss in order to provide the "free" hours without any top ups. I don't think my DDs nursery is on the verge of bankruptcy, not for a second, but as a business, the figures don't stack up. My DD attends for 3 days (max 10 hours) at a cost of £65 per day (£195). If she was entitled to 15 "free" hours (i.e. absolutely no top up), the nursery would get 15 x £3.70 from the council (£55.50) and £97.50 from me, a total of £153. They'd be "losing" £42 a week just for my DD (about £1600 over 38 weeks). If they have say 50 x 3 and 4 year olds, thats the best part of £80,000 a year they'd have to swallow to be part of the scheme.

I accept that charging top ups is not allowed by the scheme, but the scheme is just not workable.

Flibbertyjibbet Sat 23-Mar-13 22:32:21

I just looked on it as free money. When ds1 turned 3 we paid less at nursery and again when ds2 was 3. I was grateful for the state funded reduction.

One family at our nursery got thei calculators out and worked out what they thought the reduction should be based on hours of child are only. They took the complaint all the way, but the nursery provided drinks, snacks, and hot meals at lunch and tea time. They provided nappies for babies which most nurseries dont. When the children turned 3 the nursery would take them for swimming lessons and provided transport in the managers people carrier (we had to pay for the lesson). That nursery provided soooo much more than 8 till 6 of child care. The extras all have to be paid for and I was happy for them to be over and above my reduction.

In the end the authorities found in favour of the nursery. The family concerned withdrew their child in a huff and put him in a nursery where they paid about 50p a day less.
But they had to send their own food and it was 2 miles further out of their way for work.

And, do childminders all have to provide the scheme now? I thought they weren't eligible but am happy to be wrong if that's the case.

SherbetDibDab Sat 23-Mar-13 22:34:07

You can't calculate the hourly price of your childcare by simply dividing the day rate by 10. Day rates at private nurseries include food; the funding is for education only. Your nursery could charge you for the food your child eats in their session.

One reason UK childcare is expensive is our staff/child ratios are high, which I think is a good thing.

Mandy21 Sat 23-Mar-13 22:35:50

ceebee the hourly rate for the nursery doesn't change though - they still have to have a member of staff there from 7am just in case you want to drop your child then, and they still need someone there at 6pm even if you decide to collect early. Their costs are the same whether you choose to use it 10 hours or 5, unless of course you tell them days in advance and they can change their staffing plans accordingly.

ceebeegeebies Sat 23-Mar-13 22:42:08

Mandy21 that is a good point smile

Plus as Flibberty (hi grin) said, an hourly rate cannot take into account the 'extras' that are provided other than education such as food, drink etc.

Flibbertyjibbet Sat 23-Mar-13 22:51:59

Hi back at you Ceebee!

How come my kids seem huge and old and you still have one at nursery!!
I loved that nursery so much we still save old underpants and socks for their 'accidents' cupboard!

Oh yes and then also included in a daily rate is art equipment, replacement of things like aprons, toys, books, blankets, none of which would be included in the 'hourly rate' for reduction purposes.

I wouldn't have wanted to send my children to a nursery that only provided (and charged for ) flat child care with nothing else on top or included.

IsItMeOr Sat 23-Mar-13 23:03:52

I suspect you're on a bit of a hiding to nothing here OP, although I understand your frustration (not necessarily how you have expressed it though, ahem).

Merton has a problem in that it simply does not have enough state nursery places to meet the demand for the free places. We applied and didn't get anywhere for the term after DS turned 3. So we sent him to a couple of morning sessions at the private nursery (at a cost of over £30 a session, but our choice, not that there is much choice as very few of the private nurseries in our immediate area will offer just the 3 hour sessions).

So I guess this is mainly a remark to MrsHeggule to request that she moderates her tone when suggesting that everybody in Merton has the option of the free places at the state nurseries. They don't.

JumpHerWho Sat 23-Mar-13 23:09:33

I'm looking forward to DS reaching 3, so I can see him develop in a group setting we can't afford at the moment get some time away from the kid smile

JumpHerWho Sat 23-Mar-13 23:12:39

I get that nurseries aren't allowed to charge top-up fees, but that's not what they're doing here OP - they're charging one rate for the govt funded hours, a product you're entitled to and buying into - then they're selling you a separate product in the form of childcare hours while you work. I don't see the problem - and it's a bit rich for you to infer that SAHMs are entitled, when you seem to think you deserve free childcare because you work!

littlemisssarcastic Sat 23-Mar-13 23:20:45

The nursery my DD went to gave 15 hours of free nursery education from September onwards to the children who were 3 at that time.
If a child reached the age of 3 in October, they wouldn't qualify for the free 15 hours until the following September IYSWIM.

For the children who didn't qualify for the free 15 hours, their parents paid substantially more for their children's nursery sessions than the nursery received from the govt for the free funding, so yes, the paying parents were subsidising the free sessions. The nursery couldn't have afforded to run the free sessions if all of the children had been charged the same, regardless of whether they were entitled to the free 15 hours or not.

I was aware this was going on years ago. It is nothing new, but I wish you luck in your quest to see change OP. I feel you are going to need a lot of luck tbh, because I'm not sure nurseries can operate by charging everyone the same as they receive from the govt for the free hours.

lougle Sat 23-Mar-13 23:23:44

The rules state that the 15 hours have to be entirely free. That means that if your child was to attend for 15 hours, you should have no fee whatsoever.

However, the rules do not limit the preschool/nursery setting from charging variable fees.

They are within their rights, for example, to have a 2 year old rate of £3.50 per hour and a 3 year old rate of £6.50 per hour.

They are also within their rights to have a variable fee of, say, "£3.63 per hour for the first 15 hours and £5.66 per hour for any hours above 15 hours."

They are also within their rights to restrict the free hours to mornings only, afternoons only, or Mondays only.

So the upshot is, that you could find that your bill only reduces by the amount of the NEG funding when you compare it to your fees prior to qualifying for the 15 hours, but that it has been achieved by procedurally (not necessarily morally) correct methods and therefore the Council can do nothing to change it.

You would be mistaken to conclude that any of these measures result in the 15 NEG hours being less than 'free'. It is simply the case that the hours over and above this are charged at a premium.

MrsBonkers Sat 23-Mar-13 23:28:21

You want private education, you pay for it.
You want state education you don't.

You want private 15hrs early years provision you pay a top up for it.
You want state 15hrs early years provision its free.

If you work and you want to access the free provision, then you have to arrange wrap around care.

JumpHerWho Sat 23-Mar-13 23:32:22

MrsBonkers that is incorrect - nurseries can't and don't charge top-up fees for the 15 hours. What they an and do do is charge more for additional hours - which is OP's complaint.

MrsBonkers Sat 23-Mar-13 23:37:17

Sorry badly worded.
The principle is the same though, if you go state its free, you go private its not, for all the reasons/extras people have listed here.

I think the complaint with Merton should be if they don't provide enough state places.

TheDoctrineOfSnatch Sat 23-Mar-13 23:37:45

Excellent points, Lougle.

State pre-schools round here charge something for food and something for art supplies as well, even if the education is free.

MrsBonkers Sat 23-Mar-13 23:47:04

Just copied this from our local council's website:

Can a provider charge any fees for
a child’s Free Early Education place?

No, providers can not charge
any kind of fee or ‘top up’
for any part of the Free
Early Education place. The
Department for Education state
that the entitlement must be
free at the point of delivery and
access to a place should not be
dependant on parents paying
for additional hours or services.
If parents do not feel they are
being offered or receiving a
Free Early Education place
in accordance with these
guidelines please contact the
Family Information Service who
will be able to offer advice.

I stand corrected, but I'm suprised.

WinkySlink Sat 23-Mar-13 23:55:58

The bottom line here is that most private nurseries do not get enough funding from the government to cover their costs for the free provision.

Most do their best to provide it to help their clients, or would have to stop offering it at all.

Clients like the OP dont appreciate the expense, and would rather close a private business down, than take their own Custom elsewhere. There is no suggestion that any setting actually profits from offering the free hours!

WinkySlink Sun 24-Mar-13 00:06:40

I think it would be more useful if offered as a kind of voucher reglecting ts monetary value. Someone upthread said it worked out at just iver two thousand pounds a year. If the govt just gave that amount in vouchers, then people could make their decision on where to send their child on that basis.

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