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Free childcare – is it child’s play?

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It’s been many years since my son was an ankle biter and needed childcare. But I can still feel pent-up anger from the experience. Once he started (state) nursery school at three, all I needed was a few hours’ care a day to meet the gap between the end of nursery and my getting home from work. Yet I had to pay for a full-time place with the childminder: which cost me £200 a week. As it was for about 17 hours of care a week. it would work out as an hourly rate of pay that frankly I would love these days. It was one of the things that pushed me towards self-employment and working from home. But I know I was lucky – and for most working parents, this isn’t an option.

And after all, good childcare is so worth it. What’s more, from September kids aged three to four who has a parent in work (both if not a single parent) will get 30 free termtime hours of childcare a week, up from the current 15. Fabulous, you might say. But of course, there are implications. For many nursery operators, it’s bad news. That’s because at the moment parents whose children get the free 15 hours usually pay for more hours on top of that. But if they get 30 hours free, nurseries expect the take up of paid-for hours on top of the free ones to fall. Nurseries receive less from the government for the free hours than they charge for the paid ones. The result is that there may well be fewer nurseries from September because some just won’t be able to take the resulting fall in income.

There’s another change pending. The childcare voucher scheme, where you can ask your employer to give you vouchers towards your childcare costs in lieu of some of your salary, will go for new applicants from April 2018 (those who get them before they go can carry on). Instead, a new system called the Tax-free Childcare scheme is coming in this year (it will be rolled out gradually). With this, parents will put money into an account with a childcare voucher provider and the government will top this up by 20% to a maximum of £2,000 per child. The new scheme will, unlike the old, work for those of us who are self-employed too. All terribly complicated: hardly child’s play to understand.

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Saturday, 20 April 2019