Preschool where PM unveiled plan gets cold feet

By Mathew Dearnaley

A preschool centre where the Government made its election promise of 20 hours of free childcare a week is getting cold feet about the scheme.

The Tots Corner private care centre where Prime Minister Helen Clark and Trevor Mallard, then education minister, announced the scheme in a blaze of pre-election publicity in 2005 is understood to be considering imposing a surcharge on the "free" offer.

The Northcote centre will neither confirm nor deny a claim on TV3 that it is considering imposing a $50-a-week surcharge on the much-vaunted 20 hours, an arrangement the Government will not sanction under proposed rules of the scheme, due to be introduced on July 1.

Parents now pay $245 a week, or $55 a day, for a child to attend the North Shore centre.

Owner Lorraine Manuela refused to comment on the impasse yesterday, indicating that it remained a matter of discussion between the centre and parents.

The Government is proposing a funding rate of between $4.09 and $10.60 an hour for centres willing to join the scheme. It says it will not allow centres to treat the money as a subsidy to be topped up by parents.

"No, they won't be able to charge anything else," Education Minister Steve Maharey said on television last night.

But Early Childhood Council president Ross Penman said he believed it would prove politically untenable for the Government to resist pressure to change the rules

"Parents are going to be absolutely furious to find, after being promised a reduction [in childcare fees] of $90 a week, that they are not going to get it," he told the Herald.

Mr Penman said the scheme would represent an unacceptable pay cut for any centre with above-average costs, including most in Auckland and North Shore City. It was his personal belief the Government must allow them to charge a top-up.

A survey by his organisation, which represented about 1000 of the country's 1900 childcare centres, has found that just 14 per cent of those in Auckland intend to join the scheme compared with 38 per cent that have indicated they will boycott it and nearly half which are undecided.

He said his own childcare centre, which is also in North Shore City, would face a $60 income cut a week for each child if it took up the offer.

That was because it was being asked to forgo an hourly charge to parents of $7.50 in order to qualify for a $4.47 top-up to an existing subsidy of $5.40.

Mr Penman therefore stands to lose $3.03 an hour.

Asked whether he viewed the Government's apparent failure to win over Tots Corner as a slap in the face to the scheme, Mr Maharey said: "I'm not worried that some centres haven't made up their minds - it's still very early days."

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