We were excited to get ‘free’ childcare for our son. Then the government said he didn’t exist | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

We were excited to get ‘free’ childcare for our son. Then the government said he didn’t exist | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

It had already been stressful, and then the government said my son didn’t exist. After an initial administrative fiasco, we were all set to claim our “free” 15 hours of childcare for our two-year-old as part of the government’s expansion this April. But then another spanner hit the works.

We hadn’t been able to get our code due to a totally foreseeable government error, so, like the thousands of others affected, we’d been issued with a temporary one. But when our actual code was confirmed, meaning we then had two codes, the nursery was told he didn’t exist, and then that we couldn’t use the hours until next term, since our code had been issued in April. It’s as Kafkaesque as it sounds and, though it was eventually sorted out thanks to the brilliant nursery administrator, it’s another example of the confusion and chaos that has afflicted parents since the announcement that the already labyrinthine system would be expanded.

As it turns out, it looks like we’re lucky to be able to use the free hours at all – and to have a place at an outstanding local authority nursery with qualified and dedicated staff (whom our son adores). Some of our friends’ nurseries have said they simply cannot afford to offer the entitlement, and waiting lists for those that do are so long that, in one case, even signing up after the 12-week pregnancy scan proved too late.

In short, the reality is far from what Rishi Sunak has called a “positive and exciting moment” for families. As Daniel, the father of a one-year-old and a two-year-old in Chesterfield, put it: “Something needs to be done when you’ve got government ministers and the PM on daytime TV making out like it’s all fantastic. Our nursery aren’t offering it and there’s no easy way I’ve found to see a list of places local to me that are.” The amount they are having to pay is, in his own words, huge. “It’s a second mortgage, basically.”

Though I am grateful that we are eligible for the funding, the “free” 15 hours a week are not exactly that. “The marketing of this scheme has set parents up for disappointment,” says the Pregnant Then Screwed founder, Joeli Brearley. “As the scheme operates term-time only, it works out at only 11 hours a week, and due to government underfunding, the majority of providers have to charge top-up fees to survive. Parents were expecting massive savings, but the reality is very different.’’

Pregnant Then Screwed found that a quarter of parents say the new funding will save them less than £90 a month. Despite the policy being touted as an incentive for parents to return to work, 22% of eligible parents in the survey were still considering leaving their job or reducing their hours due to rising childcare costs.

I spoke to parents, providers and charities in the months leading up to April’s expanded “free” childcare rollout. The picture that emerged was of a system not fit for purpose.

According to Coram Family and Childcare’s 2024 childcare survey, 63% of councils in England are “confident” or “very confident” that there will be enough places to meet demand this April. However, only 28% say the same about September, when the scheme is extended to children from the age of nine months. This falls to 12% for September 2025, when the number of “free” hours increases to 30. The report found that costs are mounting for parents and nurseries alike, and that there has been a significant decrease in availability, particularly for children under two (only 35% of local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales had adequate provision) and disabled children (a shockingly low 6%). “I have particular concerns around access for children from more disadvantaged backgrounds,” says Ellen Broomé, managing director of Coram Family and Childcare. “Historically, as childcare has expanded more for working parents, we’ve seen a sort of corresponding decrease in the availability of some of the more disadvantaged offers.”

Lauren Nimmo lives in Warwickshire and has one-year-old-twins and a two-year-old. “We have managed to access the hours, but only for one day a week. There’s no capacity for my son to attend more,” she says. “My twins’ bill still comes to over £600 a month for one day a week, which is the same amount I get paid to teach on that day.” Lauren is “desperate” to be working more, but “it’d be impossible and we’d be in a financial deficit.”

Aisha Doolan, meanwhile, is a registered professional in Hampshire who earns £100 a month after nursery fees. “The 15 ‘free hours’ should help somewhat, but it’s going to take my family months to straighten out from the cost of me essentially working for nothing, waiting for this to kick in,” she says.

If parents remain cash-strapped, so do providers. Jo Morris, the director of two nurseries in Swindon, outlines a plethora of issues, from parents being able to refuse the additional fees the nursery needs to feed children and provide educational activities and materials, to the parlous state of funding for special educational needs places. “One of our nurseries is a 65-place nursery. If we have 40 of our families saying, actually, we’ll just bring lunch, we’ve got to pay all the costs for our cook to provide for 25 children, not 65,” she says.

Providers are expected to provide “champagne nurseries on lemonade prices”, delivering quality education and supporting children with additional needs on meagre government funding – Morris says she is receiving £14.70 a week in funding for one autistic child requiring one-to-one support, and nothing for a child who is blind. “We are the ones paying for the additional support and staffing costs for children who’ve got profound additional needs or complex medical conditions. Without that, we wouldn’t be able to have them here safely.”

Unsurprisingly, providers are not convinced by government attempts to solve the recruitment crisis by offering fast-track training and a £1,000 bonus. Morris fears these efforts could attract people who aren’t really invested in caring for and educating children. Highly skilled, talented staff are painted as glorified babysitters, she says. “Our remit is constantly being manipulated to suit the latest political whim.”

At the moment, it’s all about childcare to get parents back into work, less about child wellbeing and education, and policies seldom speak to both. The women who take care of my son are also working hard to help him and the other children to thrive. These kids aren’t just jobs to them. Until someone recognises their value properly, none of us will get the system we deserve. Joined-up thinking from this government is hardly going to happen. It’s a golden opportunity for Labour.

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