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Ministers criticised for asking parents to secure childcare place early to beat long waiting lists

Ministers have been criticised for encouraging parents to secure a place for their child at their preferred nursery now ahead of September in order to beat long waiting lists.

Applications will open on 12 May for the second wave of the rollout of reforms that expand the amount of funded childcare families can claim, the Department for Education (DfE) has said.

Eligible working parents of children as young as nine months old in England can claim 15 hours of funded childcare a week from September - but they have been encouraged to plan ahead following months of warnings that providers are struggling to meet the increased demand.

Labour said the announcement was an admission that the chancellor's "botched childcare pledge without a plan could see families miss out on the places they're entitled to".

Jeremy Hunt's autumn statement last year unveiled a new childcare plan that will see eligible families of children as young as nine months old in England able to claim 30 hours of free childcare a week by September 2025.

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As part of a staggered rollout of the policy, working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare from April, which will then be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September before the full rollout the following year.

However, a number of childcare providers have struggled to commit to offering funded places to families ahead of the first wave of the rollout from next month and complained they had been left in the dark about funding arrangements.

Early years sector leaders have also warned that staff shortages will make it difficult to deliver the childcare expansion.

The DfE has said all 153 local authorities in England have now shared funding rates for the new entitlements starting in a fortnight.

The department said places will be available for September in every area of the country but warned a significant minority of nurseries hold waiting lists more than six months long.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said: "With over 150,000 children about to begin accessing a government-funded childcare place in just over two weeks, it's clear our plan is working.

"This government has a track record of transforming childcare, with the offer of 30 hours for three and four-year-olds for eligible working parents introduced in 2017.

"We are now going further, giving hard-working parents of under threes the certainty they deserve to balance growing their families with a successful and rewarding career, saving parents up to an average of £6,900 a year for the full 30 hours."

But Bridget Phillipson, Labour's shadow education secretary, said: "These are yet more warnings that the chancellor's botched childcare pledge without a plan could see families miss out on the places they're entitled to.

"14 years of Tory rule has wrecked our early years system, driving up prices and leading to childcare deserts where vital places are scarce."

Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association, she was "pleased" that the government had started to communicate early for the September rollout.

"Childcare providers have been working really hard to make a success of this policy despite the challenges of underfunding and a deepening workforce crisis," she said.

"We know from recent research with nurseries that 75% said they had waiting lists for children under three and 56% said there was unmet demand in their local area.

"While it is important for parents to ask about available future places locally, we would urge them to be aware that childcare settings will be prioritising supporting the delivery of places for the April rollout, so they may not hear back straight away."

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Joeli Brearley, founder of the Pregnant Then Screwed charity, said: "The sector is in decline. Increasing demand whilst supply dwindles inevitably means many families will miss out on their promised entitlements.

"Right now, there isn't a plan to grow supply. Without one, there will be a large number of furious parents in September, who are forced to make decisions which will negatively impact their income and their career."