There’s nothing ‘free’ about the underfunded 30 hours – for parents or providers

carer and two toddlers playing as part of 30 hours scheme

Young beautiful teacher and toddlers playing meals using plastic food and cutlery toy at kindergarten

The Government’s 30 hours subsidised childcare programme for three and four year olds has raised a lot of controversy. For parents who have benefited so far it has brought significant savings on childcare costs, but some childcare providers are unable to afford it or are having to charge extra to subsidise it, with campaigners saying those in the poorest areas are more likely to experience problems finding a provider who can provide it. Here, Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, outlines the impact on many of his members and how this is affecting parents.

The half-term report for the government’s flagship 30 hours programme would read: ‘Could do better’.

The policy, rolled out nationally in September, promised working parents of three- and four-year-olds across England 30 hours childcare per week for 38 weeks of the year, free at the point of use for parents earning at least the equivalent of 16 hours at the national living/minimum wage, and less than £100,000 a year.

But at the Pre-school Learning Alliance, the country’s largest early years membership organisation, we’re hearing stories every week of much-loved nurseries, pre-schools and childminders closing doors, while families are facing unexpected hikes in costs and struggling to find providers who offer 30 free, fully flexible hours with no additional costs or charges. Recent revelations that as many as 20,000 parents who have applied for a 30-hour code still haven’t accessed a place suggest that the policy’s reality is falling short of expectations.

Childcare providers up and down the country have long warned that the scheme – which came on the back of years of government underfunding – would struggle to succeed. But for many working parents, some of whom desperately need the ‘free’ childcare they were promised by government, the policy’s failures must be something of a surprise.

So how have we got here?

The fact is that government funding for the 30 hour scheme just isn’t enough. When we asked providers back in March if their new funding rates were enough to make the scheme work, 62% said their rates would not only be less than the hourly rate they charge parents, but also less than the actual cost of delivering a funded place. This means that they make a loss on every hour of funded childcare they offer.

If it costs a provider £5 a hour to provide a funded place, but the government only pays them £4, they aren’t allow to ask parents to ‘top-up’ the additional £1. This is why some providers have been forced to start charging for ‘optional extras’ like lunch, nappies and trips, which aren’t covered by government funding. Others are restricting the number of funded places they offer, or when session can be access, and some – who simply can’t survive on current fulling levels – have been forced to close their doors altogether.

All this means that, even if you qualify for 30 hours, you might struggle to get it.

Parents should be able to access quality, affordable childcare that meets their needs. But without sufficient funding, 30 hours risks leaving that under threat – either through higher costs passed on to parents, limited places or closing services.

We want the government to honour its pledge of 30 hours ‘free’ childcare by ensuring neither parents nor providers have to foot the bill. Lots of parents agree, and many of them have signed up to our 5,000-strong Fair Future Funding campaign. We want to ensure the government starts listening and starts covering the true costs of delivering quality care – both today and in the future.

If you want to sign up as a parent supporter of the Alliance’s Fair Future Funding campaign, visit

For information on 30 hours eligibility and delivery rules, visit

Our interactive explainer demonstrates the impossible position providers are being put in. Try it out here:

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