Parents face worse childcare under Sunak’s free hours expansion

Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister, during a visit to a school in Hartlepool, north-east England
The findings are part of a report by the watchdog into the Government's expanded offer for working families - WPA Pool/Getty Images Europe

Parents face the prospect of poorer-quality childcare under Rishi Sunak’s expansion of free hours, the Government’s spending watchdog has warned.

A large influx of “more inexperienced” early years staff, alongside lower staff-to-child supervision ratios for two-year-olds, could jeopardise the quality of provision, according to the National Audit Office (NAO).

The findings are part of a report by the watchdog into the Government’s expanded offer for working families of children as young as nine months old across England.

As part of a staggered rollout of the childcare offer, working parents of two-year-olds have been able to access 15 hours of funded childcare this month.

This will be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September, before the full rollout of 30 hours a week to all eligible families a year later.

The NAO warned that the expansion could “impact the quality of provision or places for vulnerable children”.

There are concerns that a rapid growth in places may impact quality or displace children who are “more challenging or costly to support”, the watchdog said.

The report said: “Specifically, the risk of a large influx of more inexperienced staff and providers, alongside DfE [Department for Education] changing staff:child supervision ratios for two-year-olds and practitioner qualifications, could jeopardise quality.”

Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, in Downing Street on Budget day in March
Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, announced the move in March last year - JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP

Local authorities, sector representatives and the DfE told the watchdog that “insufficient staff represents the main barrier to expansion”.

Last week, the DfE estimated that about 85,000 new childcare places and an additional 40,000 staff will be needed by September 2025 for the full rollout.

In March last year, Jeremy Hunt, the Chancellor, announced that eligible families of children as young as nine months old in England would be able to claim 30 hours of free childcare a week by September 2025.

The Government also announced that it would increase minimum staff-to-child ratios in England from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds, but the change is optional.

The timetable was set with “significant uncertainties” around feasibility, costs and benefits because the DfE did not consult the early years sector ahead of the announcement in the Budget, the watchdog said.

The NAO report concluded: “In extending entitlements, the Government’s primary aim is to encourage more parents into work.

“Even if DfE successfully navigates the significant uncertainties, it remains unclear whether the extension will achieve its primary aim, represent value for money and not negatively impact DfE’s wider priorities relating to quality and closing the disadvantaged attainment gap.”

The NAO has called on the DfE to monitor the impact of its childcare reforms on quality to understand whether “unintended effects”, such as on the availability and quality of places for disadvantaged children or those with special educational needs and disabilities, need to be managed.

A teacher with pupils in a nursery school class
In February, the Government launched a £6.5 million-backed recruitment campaign to encourage people to work in the early years sector - Halfpoint Images/Moment RF

The watchdog said that “uncertainties” remain about whether the sector can expand and deliver enough childcare places for eligible parents, amid a lack of qualified staff and suitable space.

Only 34 per cent of local authorities, surveyed by the DfE in March, were confident there would be enough places in their area this September to meet demand.

Dame Meg Hillier, the chairman of the cross-party public accounts committee, said: “DfE needs to clarify with urgency what it will do if the early years sector cannot recruit the staff it so desperately needs, to avoid disappointing tens of thousands of parents over the next 18 months.”

In February, the Government launched a £6.5 million-backed recruitment campaign to encourage people to work in the early years sector.

The DfE also announced a trial to give new recruits and returners to the early years workforce a £1,000 cash payment shortly after they take up post.

A DfE spokesman said: “This Government is delivering the largest ever expansion of childcare in England’s history.

“The NAO rightly acknowledges that we have already exceeded our target for the first phase of the roll-out, with almost 200,000 two-year-olds already benefiting from government-funded places, supporting parents to balance their career and childcare.

“We have taken decisive steps to prepare the sector for the next phases, including increasing funding well above market rates, launching a workforce campaign and new apprenticeship routes, as well as providing £100 million of capital funding to help expand or refurbish facilities.”