18/06/2018 18:39 BST | Updated 18/06/2018 18:39 BST

The Unfair Flaw In The Government's 30 Free Childcare Hours Has A Huge Financial Impact On My Family

Children become eligible for the hours the term after their third birthday, as opposed to just upon their third birthday

Fran Mcelhone

When the government announced its decision to double the number of free childcare hours it was going to fund for eligible parents (i.e. those who are earning no more than £100,000 each a year) of three-year-olds from 15 to 30 hours, it was music to my ears.

One factor affecting my decision to leave my job as a content editor on a large regional newspaper was because, had I gone back to 40 hour weeks (the only option on the table), due to the pathetic salary after tax, my commute and childcare cost, I would have been taking home around £75 a week and hardly seeing my then one-year-old son, while he was in nursery for 10-hours a day.

So, I went freelance, and for the last two years I’ve been contending with the extraordinary task (yes extraordinary, ask anyone who does it) juggling work, childcare and virtually all the chores. But it’s meant that I’m also able to enjoy dippy eggs with my son at breakfast time and teatime with him, and, while still being fairly skint, I have been able to pursue the career I am passionate about.

But yeah, going back to the skint bit, it’s been tough. With my other half’s salary just under the £30k mark (he leaves the house at 7.30am, if not earlier, and often isn’t home till 6pm, if not later), after all the bills and the cost of childcare, there isn’t a huge amount left in the pot.

So, the government’s introduction of the tax-free childcare, introduced in April 2017, has been a huge help and is worth around £1,000 a year to us.

And the 30 free hours, which came into effect in September 2017, can’t come soon enough. But, although I am hugely grateful to the government’s efforts to ease the financial burden on working families, there is an extremely unfair clause in the scheme’s administration, meaning some families are receiving several months more free hours – worth hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds – than others.

This is because children become eligible for the hours the term after their third birthday, as opposed to just upon their third birthday.

To use myself as an example: my son, who was born at the beginning of May has to wait until September for his free hours, whereas my friend, whose daughter turned three just five weeks before at the end of March was entitled to the hours straight away (because the term after her birthday started in April). This means she has benefited from a massive five more months free childcare than myself, worth in the region of £2,000 to my family.

Just think what we could do with that money! We’re still not on the property ladder, hardly ever have a holiday and drive a banger with the wing mirror gaffer-taped on, so you can appreciate how irksome this is.

I requested a comment from the Department of Education about this perceived unfairness and they chose not to address it, however gave me this statement about its success: “The rollout of 30 hours for working parents of three and four-year-olds has been a success, with 294,000 children now benefiting, saving parents money and helping them to balance work and family life.

“The government recognises that the cost of childcare can be a barrier to parents which is why we are spending around £6bn a year – more than any other government – to ensure as many families as possible have access to high-quality, affordable childcare. This includes 30 hours free childcare, tax free childcare and childcare support through Universal Credit.”

On a separate note, childcare providers have also expressed concerns about the workability of the scheme: in the run up to it coming into play, through the course of my research for an extensive news report about the policy, a range of childcare providers I spoke to, and a few of the main bodies that represent them including the Pre-school Learning Alliance, told me that, regardless of what the DfE says, the hourly rate they are given to cover the “free” hours is not enough for them to cover costs.

As a result, many providers have had to start charging for previously free extras such as nappies or activities, which has in turn irritated parents (I have witnessed disgruntled parents bemoaning the extra charges in the car park) who don’t necessarily understand the financial strain providers have been placed under. Some providers have even closed.

Largely, this confusion is down to lack of clarity, and this needed to have come from the very top.

It’s also puzzling why the income threshold for eligible parents was placed so high at £100,000 per parent, meaning there will be families out there earning almost, but not quite, £200,000 and getting free childcare. Perhaps if the threshold was lower, the hourly rate for childcare providers could be topped up resulting in a more sustainable policy, to the benefit of all.

So, while this initiative is an honourable attempt at helping hard working families – and it does – a few tweaks here and there would make the scheme far fairer for everyone.

For more about the reaction to the viability of the scheme, click here