I URGE all of our clients and the general public to read this - it’s long, but hopefully educational, writes Denise Tupman of Grafton Childcare.

Talking to many of our wonderful clients yesterday following the long-awaited budget, I soon realised that Grafton Childcare’s perspective and struggles are vastly unknown by the general public. So, I thought I’d give our side of things regarding the so-called ‘FREE’ hours - they’re NOT free!

The government drastically underfunds these hours and leaves settings approaching parents cap-in-hand to basically beg for “voluntary contributions” towards consumables and additional services, as we are not legally able to charge a ‘top-up fee’.

As they are advertised as ‘free’, parents are then, understandably, somewhat shocked when asked if they would kindly pay something towards all of the opportunities which we provide that are NOT covered by the NOT free funding.

The cost of running a quality, well-resourced and staffed nursery such as Grafton Childcare Day Nursery & Preschool are excruciating.

Off the top of my head, we pay for: wages (we are very proud to be recognised as a Living Wage Employer), pensions, electricity, water, phone bills, PAYE, Business Tax, hygiene services (our wonderful eco washable nappies and wipes etc), public liability insurance, business insurance, ICO (data protection), PAT testing, courses for staff (Paediatric First Aid, Safeguarding, Food Hygiene etc) HR services, Accountancy services, Ofsted registration fees, nappies, consumables (such as our eco toilet paper, soaps, disinfectants, washing powder etc), craft resources (such as paints, paper, glues, eco glitters), PPE (gloves, aprons), toys (which are all eco friendly and ethically sourced), window cleaner, printer and ink and eco-paper, daily diaries, communication books and learning journals, fire extinguishers & maintenance, bank charges, software.

Not to mention our weekly dance classes, woodland experiences days in Decoy Woods, our weekly baking sessions and our vast collections of books bags and maths bags which our children all enjoy taking home each week. Oh, and the amazing healthy home cooked, lunches and dinners which we provide cooked with ingredients supplied by local businesses (Riverford Organics, Ashford’s Fruit & Veg and Bakers the Butchers) so that our parents do not have to worry about putting together a healthy packed breakfast, am & pm snacks, lunch and dinner each day.

The list goes on and on and amounts to a mind-boggling amount - all this is paid for with the hourly rate we charge, which, from the 1st April 2023 will be £6.00. That’s how businesses work, right? You’d think so!

The government then offer these “free” hours. The snag is… we don’t get our hourly rate. The Government pay us £1.44 LESS - PER HOUR, PER CHILD! (for 3 and 4-year-olds). Multiply this by 30 hours times 38 weeks, PER CHILD, EVERY WEEK - the losses are substantial!

Settings, therefore, end up paying towards the children coming to them. Which is no way to run a viable long-term 32-year-old business such as Grafton Childcare Day Nursery & Preschool.

Did you know that Devon County Council also top slice 5% of the money allocated to settings from the government? The losses are crippling. Settings are closing up and down the country on a weekly basis, and there’s a huge staffing crisis as outstanding practitioners leave the sector in their droves, to earn more than minimum wage for far fewer responsibilities working in Supermarkets, and who can blame them?

This is why Grafton Childcare Day Nursery & Preschool made the decision some years ago to become a recognised Living Wage Employer and pay our staff a minimum of £1 per hour more than the prevailing National Minimum Wage rate. From April 1, 2023, this will be £10.42 per hour. So our AMAZING qualified staff team will be earning a minimum of £11.42 per hour and many a lot lot more than that.

I get emails and telephone calls on a daily basis from distressed parents, because their child’s key worker at their current nursery has changed many many times in the past six months. This is 100% down to FREE funding and that many settings locally and nationally can only afford to pay their staff either the minimum wage or pennies above it.

Is the quality family-friendly childcare that Grafton Childcare Day Nursery & Preschool provides between 7 am - 7 pm for 49 weeks a year for our working parents expensive? Absolutely! No question about it, and now, hopefully, you can see how and where the money is spent.

With the new proposals of ‘free’ hours from nine months, many more settings up and down the country will go bust, and there will be nowhere for children to go! Leaving families with even fewer childcare options and unable to work.

The government plans to extend the 30-hour offer to working parents of all children from nine months old in England, as part of a plan to encourage parents back into work, which is laudable.

The scheme will be extended in phases, with 15 hours a week introduced for working parents of two-year-olds from April 2024. We will ONLY offer this as 11.5 hours stretched across the 49 weeks we are open.

The government then plans to offer 15 hours for working parents of children from nine months old, from September 2024. As things stand at the moment, we will only offer this from eleven months and not the proposed nine months. But only if the funding substantially covers our real running costs, the devil is in the detail, which we simply won’t know until July/August 2024!

The government plans to then offer 30 hours for all working parents of children aged nine months up to three years from September 2025. As things stand, at the moment we will only offer this from eleven months and not the proposed nine months. But only if the funding substantially covers our real running costs.

Or, the government makes it easier for Grafton Childcare Day Nursery & Preschool to charge our parents the additional services and consumables charges which we will need to do so to cover any potential shortfall in the NOT FREE FUNDING. The devil is in the detail, which we simply won’t know until July/August 2025!

The government also plans to change the staff:child ratios in early years settings by increasing the number of two-year-old children per staff member in early years settings increase from 1:4 to 1:5, as suggested by previous Prime Minister Liz Truss. This is despite thousands of people signing a petition, begging the government not to do so.

The government say that early years settings can decide not to implement this change. But as the new FREE Funding rates will be derived, assuming that settings will be using the new 1:5 ratios many will have no choice but to do so.

As yet, no figures whatsoever have been announced by the Government as to how much they will fund early years settings for these new FREE Funding hours. As we were only informed formally on the 14th March what our funding rates will be for our FREE Funding hours for the 2023/24 financial year, we will certainly not be holding our breath.

So, there you have it, the other side of the coin, and hopefully, you can now understand why the early years sector is not celebrating the latest government budget proposal.