Councils in England have been warned to ensure free nursery places remain genuinely free, after a large company was found to be wrongly charging top-up fees to parents.
All three and four year olds, and some two year olds, are entitled to fully funded early years places in England.
Nursery chain, Kiddi Caru, was found by the local government watchdog to have broken the rules on government-funded places, charging parents extra fees per hour.
‘Free must mean free’
Nurseries have long argued that funding levels are too low. However, local government ombudsman (LGO) Michael King has said: “Free must mean free.”
An LGO is a government agency, tasked with monitoring authorities and making recommendations when there have been failures to provide adequate services.
“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,” Mr King said.
"We are concerned that local authorities may not be delivering on the government's pledge to parents."
Mr King has urged all councils across England to check that early years providers in their local areas were “not making the same errors” when offering places through the Free Early years Entitlement scheme.
Local authorities must ensure schemes are within the law, with the Childcare Act 2006 placing the duty on councils to secure early years provision free of charge.
Nearly £1,000 in extra fees
Mr King’s comments came after he upheld the complaint of a Leicestershire based father who was charged top-up fees for his daughter by Kiddi Caru in Market Harborough.
The man was charged an extra £1.08 per hour by the company, on top of the council grant of £3.50 for care for his daughter. This amounted to nearly £1,000 in extra fees.
The father had raised the issue with the nursery in March 2019, and was told the charging policy was correct.
Leicestershire County Council would eventually turn down two complaints from Mr Roache before accepting the Ombudsman’s ruling.
The ruling said the county council had failed to identify the problems with the nursery’s invoices or charges, despite auditing the nursery and considering the family in question’s complaints.
The report had told the council to make sure Mr Roache’s family, and any other families who were wrongly charged by the nursery are reimbursed.
What is the free nursery offer?
All three and four year olds are entitled to 15 hours a week free early years education in nurseries, pre schools or with childminders.
From 2017, children of this age in families where both parents work (more than 16 hours a week) became entitled to an extra 15 hours a week, bringing the total to 30 hours.
The offer of free early education is also available to some two year olds from very disadvantaged backgrounds.
Nurseries have long cross-subsidised the places on the funding level with places from fee paying parents.
One way of gaining extra income is charging for meals, nappies and other extras. However, these charges must be voluntary.
The private, independent and voluntary nursery sector has estimated there is a £600 million shortfall in funding of the schemes.