Many parents are unaware that they should not be charged top-up fees for the 15 free hours of childcare they get when their child turns three, says childcare expert Liz Debenham.
She has just written a book, ‘What every Parent should know about the Free Funding for 3 & 4 year olds’, which gives advice to parents of children aged three and four on their childcare entitlements.
She decided to write the book after being inundated with phone calls asking about funding for three and four year olds and finding out that there wasn’t much detailed information about it directed at parents. Liz has been running the Childcare Directory [www.childcaredirectory.co.uk] since 2005 following 15 years working in nurseries. The Directory helps parents find childcare in their local area and contains a lot of childcare-related information.
“Most of the people who contact me for advice about funding for three and four year olds are parents who are taking their children to nursery for the first time and don’t know how it works,” she says. That lack of knowledge leaves them vulnerable to relying on nurseries for information and some end up being charged top-up fees for their free hours. The top-up fees are charged because nurseries are not paid the full cost of the free places by their local authority, but they are not allowed to do so since it goes against government guidance. “It’s quite common,” says Liz.
She says many of the questions parents ask about nursery funding concern whether they are paying the right amount. She directs those who believe their free places are not being funded properly to their local Family Information Service.
Some parents also find that they are only entitled to free hours at certain times of the day, despite the fact that the Government has recently said nurseries should allow parents to split their hours over the whole week rather than take them in specific blocks. They may also be charged for meals during the free hours, but they can apply to the FIS for help with this.
Another issue is that free places are only available in term time. Liz advises that parents check when they are looking at nursery providers whether they are flexible if they want to take their children out of nursery in the summer holidays when free hours don’t apply. Often parents lose their places if they do so.
Free places will be extended to two year olds from deprived families by 2014 and pilots are already in place in certain areas. This will work the same as those for three and four year olds, although there is expected to be no shortfall in funding granted for nurseries for these places.
Liz’s book also deals with issues like settling in. “Every nursery should have a settling in period,” she says. “I would recommend that that should stretch over a few weeks with the first visit being really short and the parent staying with the child to encourage them to participate in what is going on. The sessions should then get progressively longer and occur at different times of the day. It’s a major change in the child’s life so it is vital to devote time to settling in.”
She adds that parents should not just slip away when their children are not looking. “They should be open about the fact they are leaving and then leave without hesitating. If they are unsure or anxious their children will pick up on that,” says Liz.
She also gets asked about what to look for in a nursery. She counsels parents to go with their gut feeling. “If you feel something is not quite right about the nursery you visit do not send your child there,” she says. “It will always be niggling at the back of your mind.” She says to check out things like whether the children at the nursery are laughing, whether the setting is bright and airy and whether you can imagine your child in that setting.
*You can get a copy of Liz’s book, at a cost of £8.99, from www.childcaredirectory.co.uk or on Amazon.