Big leap in demand for free childcare in West Sussex, but there may be too few places

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There’s been a huge jump in the number of parents in West Sussex applying for the government-funded 30 hours a week of free childcare, according to new figures.

The scheme was introduced last September. Figures from the Department for Education show that 6,128 parents applied for a code to get access to the funding for the summer, an increase of 68% since the autumn term.

But childcare providers are warning that government funding is insufficient and may mean families struggling to find places.

All parents are entitled to 570 hours of free early years education or childcare for three and four-year-olds. This is calculated as 15 hours a week for the 38 weeks, in line with the standard school year, but parents may be able to spread fewer hours over more weeks.

In September last year the government doubled the hours to 1,140 or 30 hours a week for some parents. The 30-hour scheme is open to families where both parents are working, or the sole parent is in work in a single parent household. Each parent must earn the equivalent of 16 hours per week at national minimum wage but less than £100,000.

Parents go through a two-step process to access their free childcare. They must apply and, if eligible, are given an access code. They take this code to a provider to be validated for use.

The data shows that in West Sussex 4,986 codes have been validated for use this summer, 1,142 fewer than the number issued.

In response to the figures showing the rising uptake the Children’s Minister, Nadhim Zahawi, tweeted: “The number of parents securing a code for 30 hours of free childcare has risen to over 377,000. This offer is saving hardworking parents money on their childcare bills and giving them extra cash in their pockets.”

Across the country 327,000 codes have been validated, 50,000 fewer than issued. A group representing childcare and early years learning providers says that may suggests that there may be insufficient places available.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: “With 50,000 parents yet to have their codes validated, it’s clear that the government is going to face a real challenge in ensuring the delivery of sufficient 30-hour places during the summer term.

“Given that most providers will have seen little or no change in funding rates this April despite significant increases in minimum wage requirement and other costs it would not be surprising if many were unwilling to consider increasing the number of 30-hour places they offer, meaning that many areas of the country are likely to see a shortage of available places.”

Government funding is given to local authorities who make payments to frontline service providers.

Funding varies across the country based on a formula of a basic rate plus additions depending on the needs of children in the area. Additional funding is offered for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, those who have English as a second language or particular needs as a result of a disability.

In the current financial year West Sussex council receives an hourly rate of £4.78 per child.

Concern over funding for the scheme was raised by the Treasury Select Committee in its report on childcare in March.

The report said: “The Government must ensure that the hourly rate paid to providers reflects their current costs. It should also ensure that the hourly rate is updated annually in line with cost increases.”

It went on: “In order to cut costs, evidence suggests providers are cutting back on higher qualified staff and increasing their child-to-staff ratios. This could reduce the quality of the childcare being offered, working counter to the Government’s intention to improve the child development of three to four year olds.”

Information about free childcare can be found at:<https://www.gov.uk/help-with-childcare-costs/free-childcare-and-education-for-2-to-4-year-olds>

Data source:<https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/30-hours-free-childcare-eligibility-codes-