Education Secretary insists childcare remains a Government priority

The Education Secretary has insisted making childcare more affordable remains a priority amid concerns that enthusiasm for change has waned.

Conservative education select committee chairman Robin Walker sought reassurance in the Commons, saying there had been “much speculation” in the media as to whether it remains a priority.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was warned by a source close to his predecessor Liz Truss not to ditch her planned childcare reforms, amid reports that the Prime Minister is moving to shelve the plans.

Mr Sunak set out five key pledges he said would address the “people’s priorities” at the start of the year, but according to Nursery World was criticised by parts of the early years sector for not including childcare.

Cabinet meeting
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Speaking in the Commons during a session of questions related to education, Mr Walker said: “The issue of access to affordable and high quality childcare is high on the agenda of parents and of Members right across this House, and it is something that, as she has recognised, the select committee are looking in to.

“There has been much speculation in the media as to whether this remains a priority of the Government.

“Can she reassure me and the committee that she does plan further reform and investment in this space?”

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan replied: “I can reassure him and the whole House that childcare is important to this Government.

“I met with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on this only last week.

“Helping working families to take up childcare and remain in work is a Government priority.

“We have also taken some steps to make sure this happens.

“We also want to make sure that people are going to benefit from a lot of the schemes we have in place as some of them are underutilised.

“We do have a £1.2 million childcare choices campaign to increase the usage of those, but we will go further and we are looking at all options to improve the affordability and the availability of childcare and, crucially, outcomes for children.”

A playground (Danny Lawson/PA)
A playground (Danny Lawson/PA)

Labour warned there was a “crisis” in the early-years sector and called on ministers to increase childcare funding.

Shadow education minister Helen Hayes said: “Childcare is essential social infrastructure which underpins our economy by supporting parents to work.

“Yet in 2022 more than 5,000 childcare providers closed and more than half of all local authority areas saw a net loss of childcare places.

“The Government has admitted that they pay providers less than it costs them to deliver the so-called free childcare places, and with energy bills and wages going up from April, many more providers are at risk of closure.

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“There is a crisis in our early-years sector happening right now.

“What is the Government going to do to stop further childcare providers from closing?”

Ms Keegan contested Labour’s claims and said childcare provider numbers had “remained broadly stable” at 1.3 million since August 2015.

She said “additional funding of £160 million” had been given to the sector in 2022-23, with further money in the following years, adding: “This will allow local authorities to increase rates paid to childcare providers.”