Parents who want free childcare may be left ‘disappointed’ if shortages remain

Parents who expect funded childcare places to be available could be left “disappointed” unless proper infrastructure is put in place, early years leaders have warned.

Jeremy Hunt has pledged to expand childcare support to working parents in England with children as young as nine months to get people back into work.

The Chancellor announced 30 hours of free childcare for all under-fives from the moment maternity care ends, where eligible, and he said the policy would be introduced in stages to ensure there is “enough supply in the market”.

But early years leaders are concerned nurseries and childminders could struggle to deliver additional places for younger children from next year if the funding provided by the Government does not meet rising costs.

The offer of free childcare for working parents will be available to those with two-year-olds from April 2024, covering around half a million parents, but it will initially be limited to 15 hours.

From September 2024, the 15-hour offer will be extended to children from nine months, helping a total of nearly a million parents, and the full 30-hour offer to all under-fives will come in from September 2025.

Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance (EYA), which represents around 14,000 childcare providers, said: “At a time when settings are closing at record levels and early educators are leaving the sector in their droves, unless the proper infrastructure is put in place by the time the extended offers are rolled out, many parents of younger children expecting funded places to be readily available to them are likely to be left sorely disappointed.”

Megan Jarvie, head of Coram Family and Childcare charity, said it was “crucial” that there is enough funding for the expansion of free childcare places.

“If it is not right then we are at risk of seeing big childcare shortages because they are already growing,” she told the PA news agency.

Ms Jarvie added: “The sector needs to be on board. The funding rate needs to be right. And there needs to be a lot of work done between now and April to be ready to start delivering.

“Shortages of childcare are already growing and we’re now looking to expand the number of children in childcare.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to make that possible. We don’t have enough for the current demand and potentially demand is going to grow.”

In his Budget speech, Mr Hunt said the Government will increase funding paid to nurseries providing free childcare under the hours offer by £204 million from this September and rising to £288 million next year.

Joeli Brearley, chief executive and founder of Pregnant Then Screwed charity, said: “We need to see the detail as to how this money is being distributed and we need to know that the government is investing in these new schemes based on the actual cost to deliver them.

“Free childcare from nine months is brilliant, but only if there are childcare settings to be able to access this care. Without the correct funding there won’t be.”

On Wednesday, the Chancellor said the Government will change minimum staff-to-child ratios in England from 1:4 to 1:5 for two-year-olds in England, but the change will “remain optional”.

He announced that the Government would pilot incentive payments of £600 for childminders joining the profession – £1,200 if they join through an agency.

Ms Brearley added: “Without a workforce plan, providers will continue to be forced to close, and increasing ratios will be detrimental to staff retention, what they need is better pay which will come from significant investment into the sector and into the roll-out of the free hours scheme.”

Announcing his reforms to childcare on Wednesday, the Chancellor said: “We have one of the most expensive systems in the world.

“Almost half of non-working mothers said they would prefer to work if they could arrange suitable childcare.”

In his Budget speech Mr Hunt also said he wants all schools to be able to offer wraparound care either side of the school day by September 2026.

He added: “One-third of primary schools do not offer childcare at both ends of the school day, even though for many people a job requires availability throughout the working day.

“To address this we will fund schools and local authorities to increase supply of wraparound care so all school-age parents can drop their children off between 8am and 6pm.”

Christine Farquharson, senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), said: “For such a huge reform to the early years system in England, today’s Budget gave us remarkably little detail about the one thing that will really matter: the funding rate that providers will receive.

“Even under current patterns of childcare use, expanding the 30-hour offer to almost all pre-schoolers in working families will put Whitehall in charge of the price of 80% of childcare hours delivered in England.

“That raises the stakes for getting the funding rate right, with the potential for huge damage to the quality and availability of childcare if the government gets it wrong.”

Conservative MP Robin Walker, chair of the Education Select Committee, said: “There will be questions about how the sector will scale up in time to meet the increase in demand for childcare that will follow.

“The Department for Education has been handed billions, and it will now need to deliver.”