This September, working parents who earn less than £100,000 per year each will be eligible for 30 hours free childcare for three and four year olds - double the 15 hours they are currently entitled to.
If 30 free hours of childcare is delivered properly it would take an enormous financial burden off parents, allowing them to work more if they want to and the extra access to high quality childcare could be transformative to children. However, weeks away from introduction, there are more questions than answers.
Since I became the shadow minister for early years I've been inundated with messages from childcare providers, the vast majority of them saying the same thing - we don't know if we're going to be able to stay viable.
Childcare providers are paid for the hours of care they've provided at a rate set by the Department of Education. The problem is nursery sector leaders have warned that the cost is on average 39p per hour less than the going rate.
At the moment, under the existing 15 hours free childcare scheme, nurseries can make up for the shortfall in the Government rate by charging the parents for additional hours.
Is the Government holding its breath and taking the plunge, hoping providers will scrimp and save enough to provide the hours and stay in business? Neil Leach the respected CEO of the Pre-School Learning Alliance recently warned the Government, "If these vital funds are not made available, we will see more providers closing their doors, more parents unable to access 'free' childcare, and more children missing out on valuable Early Years experiences".
So in order to stay afloat nurseries will charge for extras like food and trips. Even Josy Thompson, the owner of the nursery the Minister Robert Goodwill chose to visit during the pilot evaluation was sceptical. She said "...but what the Government isn't telling you, is virtually every nursery has been charging for additional services to make ends meet, which we never did before. The vast majority can't do it with the funding they are getting, so the unspoken truth is they are charging an inflated rate for additional services. We have been charging around £8 a day on top of funding and parents are very happy to pay that. We are using it to pay wages and cover our costs and it's allowing us to make ends meet".
The government had been clear about these additional charges, that a nursery could charge but the ability to pay for the charges shouldn't be a condition of the child taking up their free entitlement place.
I was as surprised as anyone to see the DfE remove the line "as long as parents are not required to pay any fee as a condition of taking up their child's free entitlement place" from their implementation guidance just last week.
This is the Government blurring the lines of what's acceptable and what isn't just weeks before implementation.
What we cannot accept is a two tier system where parents who can't afford the extras are left without a place, or as one childminder said to me -"should I just leave the child whose parent can't afford extras at the door of the soft play center?"
Many nurseries and childcare providers are small or micro businesses, we know from any other sector that when budgets are seized, it's often the workers who lose out. Childcare workers are dedicated and can transform the lives of children, but it's a historically poorly paid role too, workers can't pay the price of a government too tight to fund its own policies properly.
It's not all about money, its places too, the Department of Education estimate 390,000 children will be eligible for the 30 hours place in September, however they expect just 200,000 to take up a place.
Is a slightly more than 50% take up of a policy that was 2nd on the 2015 Tory pledge card a success? The DfE recently admitted they'd spent just £100,000 marketing the policy, so that's a very real chance many parents may simply not know about the scheme.
Given the funding shortages, whether supply of places meets demand remains the elephant in the room.
If the Government is correct and there is a rush of registrations, there may not be the places to meet the demand. The National Day Nursery Association recently warned of a situation where the shortfall could be 50,000 places. A cynic might wonder whether the government wants to dip its toe in rather than face the wrath of thousands of angry parents if it over promises and under delivers.
I want this policy to work and if it does it'll have my full support, but with weeks to go until implementation I'm dismayed that these questions haven't been answered.
The government are still making significant tweaks to the policy and they haven't exactly sounded confident about supply meeting demand. We will wait and see what September brings.Suggest a correction