Essex County Council (17 012 348)

Category : Education > Other

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 14 Feb 2018

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: The Council is at fault for failing to provide information to Mrs X about how to claim the extended hours early years funding. The Council has apologised to Mrs X for its failure to reply and has agreed to pay her £200 for the avoidable distress caused.

The complaint

  1. Mrs X contacted the Council for information about how to claim for extended hours early years funding for her daughter from September 2017. This information was not provided so Mrs X lost out on the opportunity to claim extended hours funding for the autumn term 2017.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I spoke to Mrs X about the complaint.
  2. I have considered the Council’s reply to my enquiries and the information available for parents on its web-site.
  3. I considered the statutory guidance for councils on early education and childcare, issued in March 2017.
  4. I have considered the Ombudsman’s guidance on remedies.
  5. I gave the Council and Mrs X the opportunity to comment on my draft decision.

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What I found

  1. The Government has offered free childcare hours during term-time for children aged 3 and 4 for several years. It extended the scheme from September 2017 to 30 hours per week during term-time for eligible parents. Eligibility depends on the age of the child and the number of hours per week the parents are working.
  2. HMRC determines eligibility. Parents register with the Government’s online childcare service (“childcarechoices”), which generates an eligibility code. Councils are then responsible for making payments. The council can access the person’s eligibility code, and make funding payments directly to the child-care provider.
  3. The statutory guidance for councils, issued in March 2017, states that councils “should ensure that parents and providers are aware that the child’s parent must apply for the additional free hours through the Government’s online childcare service”.

What happened

  1. On or around 5 June 2017 Mrs X contacted the Council to ask for advice about how to claim extended hours funding for her daughter. She also wanted to check she could claim the funding for more than one learning setting. Mrs X says the Council officer told her to complete the normal funding forms.
  2. Mrs X emailed the Council’s Free Entitlement Funding Queries mailbox on 5 June 2017. She said:

“Please can you confirm that I can split the 30 hours, early years entitlement funding between two settings?

My daughter’s details are […]

The early years settings I intend to split the 30 hours free entitlement (15 hours at each setting) are [Setting 1] and [Setting 2].

Please advise what paperwork needs to be collected for this to happen in September 2017”.

  1. The Council accepts it did not reply to this email and has apologised to Mrs X for this.
  2. In the absence of a reply, Mrs X assumed she simply needed to complete the normal funding forms. Subsequently, she was told she needed an eligibility code, by which time it was too late to apply for one to get funding for the autumn term. As a result, she lost the opportunity to claim funding for that term.

The Council’s response

  1. The Council has explained that, given the number of potential applicants in its area, it decided to provide information on the scheme to child-care providers and put information on its web-site.
  2. Setting 1 told the Council it would not be offering extended hours.
  3. Setting 2 told the Council it had written to parents about the extended hours in March and April 2017. It said it had also displayed a poster at the pre-school during May 2017.
  4. The Council says Mrs X could have found information about how to claim extended hours funding from its web-site.

My findings

  1. The Council had a duty to inform parents and child-care providers of the extended hours and that applications must be made through the government’s online childcare service. It decided to do this by communicating with child-care providers. It has sent me evidence that it communicated with child-care providers and ran workshops with them to share information about the extended hours scheme. There is no fault in the way it communicated with child-care providers.
  2. The Council has sent me evidence that it put information about how to apply for extended hours funding on its web-site in May 2017 and updated this as appropriate. It also issued a press release in early June 2017. There is no fault in the way the Council provided information through its web-site.
  3. Many parents will have found out how to claim the extra hours funding by accessing the Council’s web-site. However, Mrs X asked the Council directly for information about how to claim. The Council should have responded. Mrs X was entitled to assume that there was nothing further she needed to do following her telephone conversation and email to the Council on 5 June 2017. If the Council had provided the information requested in June 2017 Mrs X would have had sufficient time to obtain an eligibility code and claim funding for the autumn term. This is fault.
  4. As a result of this fault Mrs X has lost the opportunity to claim funding worth up to £385. The fault has also caused avoidable distress. Mrs X has had to go to the time and trouble of making a complaint to the Ombudsman.
  5. In deciding the appropriate remedy, we have taken the following into account:
      1. Our guidance on remedies.
      2. The Ombudsman cannot say whether Mrs X would have got an eligibility code nor whether she would have been entitled to the full £385 claimed, even though Mrs X says she has claimed the full amount for this term and her circumstances haven’t changed.
      3. The Council did provide information about how to claim the funding on its web-site.
      4. The child-care providers should also have given this information to Mrs X.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council has already apologised for its failure to reply to Mrs X.
  2. The Council has agreed, within one month of the date of the final decision, to pay Mrs X £200 to reflect the avoidable distress caused and the time and trouble of making a complaint to the Ombudsman.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation. I have found fault leading to injustice.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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