How can we boost uptake of the 15-hours childcare scheme?

A government scheme offers 15-hours of free childcare per week, for two-year-olds from low-income families. But over a quarter of eligible families aren’t using it.

Small child playing with brightly coloured bricks on the floor in a childcare setting


Amina is a busy mother of five living in London. On top of looking after her family and planning her own return to work, she also volunteers to help local families find out about their childcare options. 

“I don’t have a specific time [when I do it],” says Amina, who is part of a national parent-volunteer network run by the charity Coram Family and Childcare. “I do it on the bus, on the train, on the street, at the playground – whenever I see someone who has small children, I just have a little conversation.”

One of Amina’s aims is to tell low-income families about a state scheme that provides them with some free childcare once their child turns two. Such a scheme sounds like it would be wildly popular given the UK’s high childcare costs – but in reality it is relatively underused. Charities, innovation groups, councils, and volunteers like Amina are trying to change that.

Childcare has been in the spotlight in recent months, in the lead-up to and aftermath of Jeremy Hunt’s Budget announcement. Families and campaigners have been speaking up about high costs and shortages of spaces, as well as the state’s complex maze of subsidies. 

Within this maze, there is a ‘free hours’ scheme specifically for low-income families. In England, families on certain state benefits are entitled to 15 hours of free childcare per week during term-time when their child turns two. The offer is also open to some children with special educational needs and disabilities.

However, nearly a decade since its introduction, only 72% of eligible families are taking up the offer, according to a report this year by the innovation agency Nesta. Children using the scheme also had lower nursery attendance rates than their non-state-funded peers.

The scheme’s main aim is to help close attainment gaps between children from rich and poor households. Amina’s three youngest children have all taken part and she can see how it helped them to prepare for school, as well as giving them chances to do activities such as “messy play” that she could not have set up at home.

Amina adds that the scheme can also help parents who want to start preparing to return to work, by freeing up a few hours a day and helping them to get used to being away from their child for short stints. “If you start with 15 hours, you have that time [to go] somewhere…for training or volunteering,” she says. “And you also learn to let your child go and explore the world.” 

So, given these benefits, why isn’t the scheme more popular?

‘It’s definitely not babysitting’

Story Time at Nursery

One issue is low awareness, says Tom Symonds, who works on early-years innovations at Nesta. When the agency conducted a series of focus groups with eligible families for its report, they found that many families either didn’t know about the scheme at all, or didn’t know about its potential benefits for their children. 

In media coverage and political speeches, childcare is often primarily presented as something that allows parents to work. Some stay-at-home parents thus don’t know that spending some hours in a childcare setting each week can boost their child’s development. Many early-years professionals prefer the term ‘early education’ to ‘childcare’ for this very reason.

“It’s definitely not babysitting,” Symons says. “It’s going to an educational setting with trained educators, where there will be structured activities…for children of that age.”

Families who want to use the scheme also come up against practical issues, due to the growing shortage of childcare spaces in England, says Megan Jarvie, head of Coram Family and Childcare. Some eligible families cannot find a space at all, while others cannot find a space with a nursery or childminder that they feel comfortable with.

“Parents are rightfully picky about who looks after their children – that is a massive act of trust, isn’t it, to leave your children with someone else,” Jarvie says.

Many nurseries spread the 15 hours evenly across the week, giving families a three-hour chunk per weekday. This is because relatively short but regular doses of formal childcare have been shown to be well-suited to toddlers’ development.

What are the solutions?

In order to encourage more eligible families to take up the scheme, taking a local approach and building trust with parents in person seems to work best. Many parents feel very unsure about leaving their children with people they do not know, especially if few of their peers are doing so. Some communities also have low trust in public services.

Symons cites Stockport’s council, which has a relatively good take-up of the scheme, and which has used health visitors to spread the word about it. “Having trusted people within a community who are signposting parents…is really powerful,” he says.

Symons adds that some councils are experimenting with the letter they send to eligible families shortly before their child turns two, switching to a postcard with an immediately visible message, instead of a traditional letter that might go unopened. 

Amina and her fellow parent-volunteers also make the most of the in-person approach. Amina says the most valuable thing she can do is simply tell parents about her experiences of the scheme, so they can make a more informed decision, rather than one based on fear or uncertainty. Having a word-of-mouth endorsement from someone in your community can make all the difference.

“Honestly, many parents come back to me and say: ‘Thank you, Amina, if it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have gone there,’ ” she says.


You can find out more about Coram Family and Childcare’s national network of Parent Champions here.

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