Experts are urging employers not to think of the government's free childcare offering as a ‘complete solution’ for parents’ needs, as the scheme is plagued with problems.
From the start of next month, all three- and four-year-olds with working parents will be entitled to 30 hours a week free childcare during school term time. At present, they are entitled to 15 hours, although the extended hours have already been piloted in some areas.
However, research from the Family and Childcare Trust published in February revealed a third of local authorities feared the quality of the care they could provide would suffer when the extended offering was rolled out.
And a study by the Pre-School Learning Alliance, released in April, discovered just 44 per cent of the childcare providers were definitely planning to offer the 30 hours free care, despite 95 per cent currently offering 15-hour funded places.
“There is certainly a lot of push back and opt out from the nursery sector on the 30 hours and significant variance in the rate that the local authority is paying for this care and the way in which it is offered and hours available, that would make it far from being a ‘silver bullet’ solution,” said Oliver Black, director at My Family Care.
He added it would be “naïve of employers to think that this is somehow a complete solution”.
Mandy Garner, editor of jobsite Working Mums, told People Management access to free childcare could become a “postcode lottery” because not every area would have a nursery offering the hours. “Employers who think that it’s going to solve things may find that that’s not the case,” she added.
The National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA) has warned it is already seeing an increase in the number of nurseries closing across the UK as they struggle to cope with the demands.
“Employers who have staff with young children might be hoping their employees could work more hours while their children are in nursery for longer, and staff themselves may be hoping childcare will be more affordable,” said Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of NDNA.
Tanuku continued: “If nurseries are unable to provide these extra places, the 30 hours scheme will not be as beneficial for employers and employees as they might be hoping.”
Meanwhile, the HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) online system which enables parents to claim free childcare has been reported to have been suffering from IT glitches, leaving many unable to logon and complete their applications.
Some companies have already taken childcare issues into their own hands by providing facilities for staff onsite. Banking giant Goldman Sachs first opened its childcare centre in 2003 and it currently offers four weeks of free full-time childcare for mothers returning after maternity leave, and another four weeks of free back-up care per child per year to help parents cover emergencies.
“The key factor for employers to effectively support employees with their parental responsibilities is to be flexible and open to options that will work for employees' varied situations,” said Carla Moquin, founder of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, as US-based think tank. “Parents' specific needs for support change as their children grow, and companies benefit from recognising that accommodating parents to the extent possible will reap significant benefits for the business in retention, morale and loyalty.”
Minister for children and families, Robert Goodwill, said: “The 30-hour offer is already being delivered in several areas across the country, with over 15,000 children benefitting from a place. We know from our evaluation that providers are committed to offering 30 hours and the additional hours are having a really positive impact on families, taking huge pressures off families’ finances.”