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Free childcare chaos leaves working parents unsupported

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Working parents could be squeezed out of the workforce thanks to the government’s confusing and understaffed free childcare scheme, experts have warned.

From 1 April 2024, the government has pledged that working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare.

However, concerns have been raised about technical issues with the scheme by charity Pregnant Then Screwed, after it found only one in 10 parents have only been able to obtain an access code for the new scheme.


Read more: Childcare in the UK becoming less affordable and reliable


In its survey of 6,000 parents, 13% said their childcare provider has given them a deadline to use the code which is before they will receive it. Meanwhile, 17% do not understand how the system works. 

Joeli Brearley, CEO and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed, said: “We have been inundated with messages from frantic parents who don’t understand the system, or expect to receive their code too late.

“Meanwhile, many providers haven’t been given the information they need from their local authority to decipher what their income will be from April onwards.

“Parents can’t access their codes, providers can’t do their financial forecasting – it’s bedlam.”

There are also issues with understaffing and underfunding.

Pregnant Then Screwed research found only 55% of parents have found a childcare setting that will accept the new free hours for two-year-olds, due to underfunding.

Meanwhile, almost 100,000 extra workers are needed to fulfil the government’s childcare pledge, according to research by the University of Leeds and the Early Education and Childcare Coalition.

Brearley said poor planning and delivery around free childcare will leave working parents struggling to manage their careers.

She said: “The majority of parents are still unsure as to whether they will be able to secure the funded hours they so desperately need. Why does it often feel as though these schemes are drafted on the back of a fag packet without proper consideration for the end-user?

“Parents struggling to understand the system or trying to secure their code are told to call the childcare services helpline, but parents we have spoken to complain of being on call waiting for very long periods, with many saying the line then cuts out.

“Our benefit helpline isn’t able to keep up with demand, and we’re being flooded with messages. We’ve become a childcare helpline for the government overnight.”


Read more: Childcare costs forcing mothers to quit work


Helen Sachdev, director of coaching practice WOMBA, also raised concerns that the family income threshold will encourage women to step back from work.

She told HR magazine: “One of our concerns is that the structure of ‘free childcare’ will force many mothers into part-time work to avoid hitting the £100,000 combined family income threshold.

“It’s no secret that during times of economic pressure, those most at risk of redundancy are those working part-time. With that in mind, the government’s scheme risks perpetuating inequality, rather than helping to resolve it. 

“Keeping women in the labour market is crucial to the functioning of any healthy economy. The government should provide opportunities for mums to earn as much as, or more than, their partners in full-time employment, if this is what they’d like to do. The current family income threshold does little to incentivise this.”

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