Parents are subsidising a new flagship “free” nursery scheme for three- and four-year-olds in England from their own pockets, a survey suggests.
Nurseries are making up losses by upping fees for younger children and charging for meals and nappies, a survey of 1,662 providers suggests.
The survey, by the Pre-School Learning Alliance, suggests only a third are delivering the hours totally free.
The government says it is investing £6bn in childcare by 2020.
It added that any charges to parents on the scheme must be voluntary.
The poll of nurseries, pre-schools and childminders is the first to be carried out since the 30-hour free childcare scheme came into effect in September, and has been shared exclusively with the BBC.
Families where both parents are working more than 16 hours a week, but earning under £100,000 each, qualify for the scheme. It expands the number of free hours childcare for this age group from 15 a week.
But nurseries and pre-schools have long warned they will struggle to make ends meet because the hourly rates they are receiving from the government are too low.
Nurseries and pre-schools have already been cross-subsidising the previous entitlement of 15 hours a week with fees from non-government funded children.
According to the survey, conducted online among alliance members, over a third said they were making up losses by upping fees for younger children.
And charges for items such as meals and nappies are also being made at a third of the settings that responded.