Free childcare to double. But at what cost?

Shockwaves resounded across the country last month as David Cameron and the Conservatives returned to 10 Downing Street in their strongest position since the early 1990’s. Now the electorate can only wait and see how many of its pre-election promises the party will keep – and for parents that has included the pledge to double the existing free childcare provision for three and four-year-olds to 30 hours a week.

Last week David Cameron came out to state that he would keep the promise made in his election manifesto and double provision for free childcare for all working parents of three- and four- year olds from 15 hours to 30 hours per week. And he will do it a year ahead of schedule.

A childcare bill, introduced in the House of Commons on 2nd June 2015, includes a pilot programme offering free nursery places to up to 600,000 families by September 2016, worth about £5,000 a year. The programme aims to be branched out across the whole of England by 2017.

Mr Cameron says this initiative shows the Government is "on the side of working people." However, not everyone is satisfied with the proposals, including childcare providers who claim that the proposed funding will not stretch far enough.

Leading expert and founder of Parental Choice Sarah-Jane Butler, who has worked with various Government policy groups aiming to improve childcare nationally, says the reality of the initiative is a little different from its grand ideas.

“I think the idea makes a good headline but even now the 15 hours of childcare available is not exactly free as nurseries and child-minders can't provide the quality and safety parents and children deserve for the amount the Government provides," she said. "So parents shouldn't be misled. There will still be costs to pay.”

“Plus it also begs the question what does one do for children under three years old? When women are looking to return to work after maternity leave, one of the biggest factors is the cost of childcare. Taking three years out of the work market can have a big impact on home finances as well as career prospects.”

Currently, all three and four-year olds in England are entitled to 15 hours a week of free early education or childcare for 38 (term-time) weeks of the year. The previous coalition government expanded this allowance to the country’s most deprived two-year-olds.

As well as pledging to double the childcare provision for three and four-year-olds, the Conservatives also stated that from autumn 2015 they would introduce a new tax-free childcare voucher scheme, aimed at working parents earning less than £150,000 a year. Additionally, all parents who are receiving universal credit would be entitled to an 85% subsidy on childcare spending.