‘Free must mean free’, says Ombudsman

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman is urging councils to have better oversight of nurseries offering free early years places, after a nursery chain was found to be charging Leicestershire parents a ‘top-up fee’.

A nursery in Market Harborough has charged parents the difference between the amount Leicestershire County Council paid the chain for the places, and the amount they charged private customers, according to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman. This is despite government guidance stating that places must be free.

Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said:

‘While I acknowledge local authorities – and the early years sector – are struggling financially, the Government’s intentions have always been that these places are provided free of charge to parents, and it is up to local authorities to administer them accordingly.

‘Guidance states that councils should work with providers to ensure invoices are clear, transparent and itemised.  Free must mean free, but in this case it was not possible for the man to see how the invoice was calculated or whether his daughter was receiving her entitlement free of charge.

However, early years providers offer a wide range of services and options to parents depending on their individual circumstances. National Day Nurseries Addociation (NDNA) points out that as a result there is not a one size fits all approach to costs for services that are being delivered.

‘Providers can charge for additional consumable items, food, nappies and activities which may be covered by parental agreements,’ says NDNA chief executive Purnima Tanuku.

‘We would always advise providers to be very clear in their communications to parents about any additional costs. Nurseries are working hard to give children access to high quality early years educational opportunities. However, since the funded hours policy was brought in we have been providing evidence that the rates paid to, and by, local authorities do not cover the actual costs of delivering these places. The funding rates have never kept pace with National Minimum Wage increases and other rising business costs.

‘The places aren’t ‘free’ because the hourly rate provided by Government does not cover the full cost of the delivery. In the end it is parents and providers who pay the price of chronic underfunding to the sector.’

Source Early Years Educator


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