Government admits criticised new childcare policy is ‘no easy task’ to implement

Government admits criticised new childcare policy is ‘no easy task’ to implement

The government has admitted its new childcare policy is “no easy task” to roll out, as ministers invited parents to sign up to their flagship plan.

From today, parents are being asked to register for the government’s much-trumpeted scheme that will offer 30 hours of free childcare for under-fives from 2025.

But experts in the field, along with the Labour Party, have warned that a staffing crisis and long-term underfunding mean that the provision will be impossible to roll out as services struggle to recruit and retain workers.

In December, The Independent revealed that thousands of nurseries had shut their doors because of staff shortages, prompting warnings that Jeremy Hunt’s Budget pledge was “doomed to failure”.

Now, writing in The Independent, education secretary Gillian Keegan has defended the policy and insisted it will make a difference: “I know the delivery of this transformation is no easy task, which is why I am pushing ahead with increased funding rates across the country and up to £1,200 for new childminders, knocking down barriers to recruiting and retaining the talented staff that provide such wonderful care for children.”

The MP for Chichester said the government had “committed to the largest ever investment, and biggest ever expansion, in childcare in England’s history” in the last spring Budget.

“Yesterday, that expansion became law – an important step so we can deliver this transformative childcare offer,” the politician added.

Ms Keegan wrote: “Today, sign-up opens for working parents to start applying for the first stage of the new offer – 15 hours of free childcare for two-year-olds. Hundreds of thousands of parents will be eligible, and those who are interested should register between mid-January and the end of February, to take up places from April.”

Labour, which is drawing up its own plan to expand nursery places, said the Tories’ pledges are “meaningless” to parents who are unable to find childcare.

Labour’s shadow education secretary, Bridget Phillipson, said: “Childcare providers have been pushed to breaking point under the Conservatives, stuck with soaring costs and struggling to recruit the skilled staff they need.”

Ms Phillipson said Labour had commissioned a review of early years provision within the childcare sector, and would roll out the “credible plan parents and children need”.

Recent figures from the schools inspectorate Ofsted revealed that 3,320 of the 62,300 nurseries and childminders caring for under-fives in England had shut their doors in the past year alone, leaving 17,800 fewer childcare places available.

Chancellor Jeremy Hunt during a visit to Busy Bees nursery in Battersea, south London (PA)
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt during a visit to Busy Bees nursery in Battersea, south London (PA)

The number of nurseries and early years services for under-fives has plummeted by a quarter in recent years, from 84,970 in 2015-2016 to 63,207 in 2022-2023.

Almost 100,000 extra workers are needed to fulfil Mr Hunt’s pledge, according to research by the University of Leeds and the Early Education and Childcare Coalition, while 180,000 additional places will be needed by the end of 2025 for the rollout to work.

Joeli Brearley, chief executive and founder of prominent campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed, called for the introduction of new legislation that explicitly states that services must be given sufficient funding to pay for the implementation of the expanded childcare policy.

She added: “Many providers still don’t know how much funding they will receive to deliver these ‘free’ places. The money is distributed to providers by the local authority. Each local authority pays a different rate, but as yet, those rates have not been set.

For years, the level of funding that the government pays nurseries, preschools and childminders has fallen well short of the true cost of delivery, leaving many struggling to remain financially viable

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance

“This leaves providers in an impossible situation, where parents are asking if their costs will reduce from April, but nurseries are unable to plan as they don’t have all the relevant information.”

She said many services are choosing not to subscribe to the expanded childcare scheme because of concerns that there will be insufficient funding available to implement it.

Ms Brearley warned that parents are struggling to find childcare places for their children – with waiting lists “out of control” and many local providers unexpectedly closing.

The government’s new policy enables eligible working parents of two-year-olds to claim 15 hours a week of free childcare for 38 weeks of the year from April onwards. And from September 2025, working parents who have children under five will be able to claim 30 hours of free childcare for 38 weeks per year.

Ministers recently unveiled £400m of extra funding for childcare places, but providers remain concerned about the lack of trained workers available, given the corresponding increase in staff that the scheme will require.

Meanwhile, the Confederation of British Industry has estimated that implementing the government’s expanded childcare plans will cost £8.9bn rather than the £4bn ministers have allocated to fund the increase in places – with this sum to include staffing costs, bills, rent, and resources.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said expanded childcare might “sound good in theory” but “it is likely to be near impossible to actually deliver”.

He added: “For years, the level of funding that the government pays nurseries, preschools and childminders for so-called “free entitlement” places has fallen well short of the true cost of delivery, leaving many providers struggling to remain financially viable.”

Mr Leitch, whose organisation represents nurseries, preschools and registered childminders among others, said that the sector is currently grappling with the “worst staffing crisis in recent history”.

Mr Hunt’s policy will only be feasible if enough early years providers are in a position to support the newly funded places, but the government has gone nowhere near far enough to ensure this, he added.

Ellen Broom, of Coram Family and Childcare, said: “We already have a situation with severe shortages of childcare – especially for children with special educational needs and disabilities, and those parents who work irregular hours.

“The workforce – one of the lowest-paid in the country – will need to expand, with many new practitioners needed to fill both existing gaps and provide more places.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are delivering the single biggest investment in childcare in England’s history, providing 30 hours a week for working parents from [when their children are] nine months old up to when they start school, which could save parents who use their full entitlement up to £6,500 a year.

“We are already investing hundreds of millions of pounds to increase hourly funding rates, have allocated £100m in capital funding for more early years and wraparound places and spaces, and will be launching a nationwide recruitment campaign in the new year.”