Staff shortages and funding: Charities warn childcare issues remain

Rishi Sunak says the free childcare expansion will go ahead as planned in April but charities are warning key issues remain unresolved, ITV News' Romilly Weeks reports

Parents looking forward to more free childcare will be left disappointed unless the government fixes a number of issues outstanding ahead of an expansion in April, charities have warned.

Rishi Sunak admitted there have been some "practical issues" related to the upcoming expansion of free childcare, which he said had now been resolved.

But charities claim the government has addressed "only one small part of a much bigger problem".

Labour said the plans to expand free childcare to more parents in England, set out by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt in his Budget last March, now lie in "tatters" because no thought had been given to the policy beyond its announcement.

What is the plan to expand free childcare?

Plans announced by Chancellor Hunt last year are aimed at providing families with children as young as nine months to with 30 hours of free childcare a week.

Under the plans, working parents of two-year-olds will be able to access 15 hours of free childcare from April.

This will be extended to working parents of all children older than nine months from September.

From September 2025, working parents of children under five will be entitled to 30 hours’ free childcare per week.

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One issue resolved but parents will be "left disappointed" in April if others not fixed

In order to access the free childcare, parents have been able to gain eligibility codes from a government website since the start of the year, but thousands have been unable to.

Parenting charity Pregnant then Screwed surveyed 6,000 parents eligible for the childcare for two-year-olds and found that just 11% of those had been able to access their codes.

Prime Minister Sunak said this issue has now been fixed.

"Many families have been able to sign up and it’s all working fine, but there are some practical issues that certain families are facing," he told broadcasters during a visit to south Buckinghamshire.

"I just want to reassure all of those people that those issues are being resolved as we speak, all of those families will get the childcare that they are eligible for.”

He said all of those families unable to get codes "will get the childcare they are eligible for and will be contacted as soon as possible".

But charity the Early Years Alliance said "eligibility codes are only one small part of a much bigger problem".

It added that "many parents [will be] left disappointed when the new offer rolls out in April" if other issues are unresolved.

'Staffing shortages and funding mysteries remain'

When the policy was announced last year, many in the childcare sector warned it would be tough to expand the free provision unless staffing shortages were resolved - charities are now claiming they haven't been.

And on top of that longstanding issue, many nurseries say they still don't know their funding rates, meaning they are currently unable to confirm whether they will be providing care to two-year-olds under the scheme.

Pregnant then Screwed CEO Joeli Brearley said: "Many providers still don't have the information they need from the local authority to plan effectively, leaving parents and providers in the dark as to whether they can access the hours.

"We are also hearing from a number of parents that their childcare bill has increased to account for the gap in funding from the government.

"Some childcare settings are removing the funding for 3-4 year olds as well as not enrolling in the funding for 2 year olds. There's still a long way to go before we will have an affordable, accessible, high quality childcare system that parents can rely on.”

Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, said "many providers still aren’t in a position to confirm whether or not they will even be offering funded places to two-year-olds under the new scheme".

He said that's because a "significant proportion" of providers still don’t know their funding rates for the new financial year.

He added: “Unless government also looks to address these issues as a matter of urgency, we will still see many parents left disappointed when the new offer rolls out in April."

Mr Sunak, when asked if he could guarantee the rollout would go ahead as planned, said yes.

Parents 'paying the price for Tory failure', Labour claims

Labour hit out at the Conservatives' record on education and childcare, saying families are "paying the price" for a "disastrous failure".

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said the promise to expand free childcare "now lies in tatters" because the government never put plans in place beyond the announcement last March.

She said: “First the chaos of crumbling concrete buildings, then the botched budgets for our schools, now the disastrous failure on delivering childcare commitments, with families paying the price.

“Funded hours are no good if families can’t access them – the Conservatives’ promise to parents now lies in tatters because there was no plan behind the pledge in last year’s Budget Statement."

She added: “Only Labour has a plan to transform our early years system and deliver the modern childcare system that gives parents choices and children the best start in life.”

A DfE spokesperson said thousands of parents have already applied for the expansion starting in April but said a number are facing issues.

"A pre-existing feature in the system, where parents re-confirm their eligibility every three months, is impacting a minority of parents when combined with a small number of providers who are asking for codes much earlier than April.

“Parents who can’t re-confirm online until the second half of February or March will therefore automatically receive a letter with a code from HMRC before the middle of February, without needing to take any action.”

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