Nurseries charging for 'free' childcare in Sheffield say 'we refuse to lie to parents'

A defiant nursery director in Sheffield charging for so-called 'free' childcare says she is not prepared to lie to parents about the costs.

Wednesday, 10th January 2018, 1:13 pm
Updated Thursday, 11th January 2018, 4:25 pm
Staff at Treetops Day Nursery, which is one of three sites in Sheffield run by Cornerstone Nurseries

Working parents across the country should now be able to access 30 hours of free childcare, under a new government scheme introduced in September.

But many nurseries signing up to the initiative have begun asking parents to pay for things like nappies and lunches, which were previously included in fees, to cover what they say is a shortfall in government funding.

Cornerstone Nurseries, in Sheffield, which runs nurseries in Chapeltown, Ecclesall and Jordanthorpe, has now taken the unusual step of asking working parents for £30 a week towards what it calls the 'all-encompassing' cost of care.

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Its director Paula Malik said: "These funded hours were costing us a lot of money to provide and it was impossible to continue doing so without charging parents to cover the shortfall.

"I refuse to lie to parents by telling them it's for snacks, outings and such like. The truth is it's an all-encompassing charge for the whole package of care. We're a private nursery, not a charity, and we have to cover our costs like any other business."

Ms Malik said around four-fifths of parents affected understood why the extra charge was being imposed and were 'absolutely fine' with paying, though a small minority had complained.

One parent, who contacted The Star, accused the nursery provider of unfairly flouting legislation.

All parents of three and four-year-olds are entitled to 15 hours of funded childcare, with an extra 15 hours available to those in work.

This is referred to as 'free childcare' by the Government, but some local authorities like Sheffield Council call it 'extended funded early learning (FEL)' - a term many nurseries feel better reflects the reality of how far the funding stretches.

The Government provides funding for local authorities to pass on to nurseries, with those in Sheffield currently receiving £4.07 an hour per child, based on a ratio of eight children per member of staff.

Nurseries are not obliged to offer the funded childcare but some have said they fear they will be unable to fill their places if they don't.

The Department for Education says the funding is not intended to cover the cost of meals, nappies or other extras, for which nurseries are entitled to charge.

But it says any nurseries imposing such charges must make it clear what the money is for and offer parents an alternative, like providing a packed lunch.

Jo Morris, of the Facebook page 'Champagne Nurseries on Lemonade Funding', said nurseries are having to be 'creative' when it comes to charging for extras to cover the true costs of providing childcare.

She said the vast majority of nurseries were charging for various extras, or upping the fees for non-funded hours, and many were closing due to the legislation.

She also expressed fears it could lower the quality of care provided by nurseries and childminders, which she said was currently excellent.

"The way it works at the moment is not fair on parents because they're being told it's free and then having to pay extra costs, and it's not fair on nurseries because we're having to struggle to provide childcare without adequate funding and to explain our position to parents," she added.

A Sheffield Council spokeswoman said: "We are discussing additional charges with a number of nurseries including Cornerstone Nurseries who have been proactive in making sure their charging policy stays within government regulations," she added.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said it would be investing around £6 billion a year by 2020 in childcare, and claimed doubling the number of free hours available was saving working parents thousands of pounds a year and helping people get back into work.

Sheffield Council will receive £4.57 per child per hour to cover the cost of the initiative in 2018/19, which the Government said was 'significantly higher' than the £3.72 research showed it cost on average to provide a place.