Jeremy Corbyn has announced plans to extend free childcare, saying decent early years education is “at risk of becoming a privilege”.
Speaking at the Labour conference in Liverpool, the leader of the party pledged universal free high quality childcare.
His commitment would see parents pay no more than £4 an hour for extra childcare on top of the 30 hours a week of free provision for all two, three and four-year-olds.
Poorer parents would get free entitlement to the additional hours, Mr Corbyn said.
Currently, working households in England are eligible for 30 hours of funded childcare for three or four-year-olds, while some qualifying families can get 15 hours for two-year-olds.
But the scheme has been criticised for leaving some childcare providers struggling to remain open because of increased running costs.
Setting out Labour’s plan to extend free childcare, Mr Corbyn said: “Decent early years education is now at risk of becoming a privilege.
“Families most in need are not even entitled to it and many who are struggle to claim it, because the system’s fragmented and underfunded.”
He told delegates the Government’s “limited” offer was “free in name only” but that Labour would make 30 hours a week of free childcare available to all two, three and four-year olds.
He also promised additional subsidised hours of childcare on top of the 30 hours, free for those on the lowest incomes and capped at £4 an hour for the rest.
“Patchy support for childcare is holding back too many parents and families and the life chances of too many children,” Mr Corbyn said.
“This universal free high quality childcare will benefit parents, families and children all across our country.”
Welcoming the announcement, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Labour’s proposals promise not only to increase the quantity of Early Years provision but also its quality.
“Recruiting early years workers in large numbers, and improving and extending their education will be challenging. But they are the right moves, which will benefit children and their families.
“Good Early Years provision is the bedrock of a successful education system. Labour’s proposals are ambitious and necessary.
“Implementing them will require large-scale funding over a long period. This announcement is a good beginning to this long-term task.”
Mr Corbyn also said parents would be able to use a simplified online system to arrange their childcare, and there would be a shift to a graduate-led workforce.
Deborah Lawson, general secretary of Voice, the union for education professionals, said: “We welcome Mr Corbyn’s plans to ‘shift to a graduate-led workforce’ to ‘improve the pay and skill levels of childcare staff’ and ‘drive up standards’ and for staff to be qualified to or working towards Level 3.
“Again, however, urgent action is needed to prevent the loss of current early years graduates before the workforce can be graduate-led.
“Early Years Teachers (EYT) do not earn the same salary levels or have the same recognition as teachers with qualified teacher status (QTS), even though they receive training of a comparable rigour, and are delivering the same curriculum. This situation must end.
“Until this inequality is resolved, most EYTs will view primary teaching as the only way they can secure a reasonable salary and future career progression.”