Rishi Sunak insisted a massive expansion of free childcare will proceed as planned, despite warnings from nurseries about a “crisis” and a “baffling” system for parents.
The Prime Minister insisted all eligible children in England will be able to benefit from the changes, which will be phased in from the spring, despite “practical issues” affecting some families.
Parents who have been unable to apply for 15 hours of funded childcare despite being eligible will now be automatically sent a code in the post to access the scheme, the Department for Education (DfE) has announced.
But childcare providers said they still did not know what funding they will receive for the scheme, and complained about the Government’s handling of the policy in England.
Chancellor Jeremy Hunt announced in March 2023 that some families of children as young as nine months will be able claim 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.
Eligible working parents have been able to apply for a code to access the scheme for two-year-olds since the start of January.
But some parents had been told they cannot apply for a code online until their “reconfirmation window” in their government childcare account opens – and for some this will not happen until March, which prompted fears that they could miss out on the new scheme when it begins on April 1.
Now the DfE has said parents who cannot re-confirm their status online until the second half of February or March will be posted a code by HMRC before the middle of February “without needing to take any action”.
But some nurseries have been unable to tell parents whether they will be able to accept the codes and offer funded places in April as they have not yet been given the funding rates they will be paid by their local authority.
And there are also concerns about recruiting and retaining staff to deliver the policy pledge.
I’ve always said parents shouldn’t have to choose between a career and a family.
It's why we're delivering the largest ever expansion of free childcare support.
This week applications for the first stage of our childcare expansion opened 👇https://t.co/9wZLnGuoUq
— Rishi Sunak (@RishiSunak) January 5, 2024
But Mr Sunak told reporters the Government will “deliver the plans exactly as we said we would”.
He added: “I know there are some practical issues but this is the biggest expansion in childcare that our country has seen.”
He said the Government will “work through these issues to make sure everybody gets the support that they need”.
Meanwhile the Government suggested councils could be named and shamed if they failed to publish their funding rates for childcare providers.
Children and families minister David Johnston said: “I reserve the right to do that but we hope by ringing them up first and asking them to, with the threat of perhaps doing that, that they will do so.”
Trade bodies representing childcare providers said they still had major concerns about the situation.
Early Years Alliance chief executive Neil Leitch said: “The Government continues to reassure parents that all children who are eligible for the new funded early years offers will be able to access places – but the harsh reality is that, for many families, this simply won’t be the case. ”
Many nurseries, pre-schools and childminders “still have no idea what funding rate they will receive from April, making it impossible to plan – and in some cases, commit to opting into the new offers at all”, he said.
The sector was also in the midst of “the worst early years recruitment and retention crisis in recent memory”.
Purnima Tanuku, chief executive of National Day Nurseries Association (NDNA), said the “temporary fix” for the problem with issuing codes to parents was welcome but will put “another layer of potential confusion on an already baffling system”.
Shadow education secretary Bridget Philipson said the childcare pledge was “in tatters because of Conservative bungling” and “families across this country (are) paying the price for Tory incompetence”.
Joeli Brearley, founder of charity Pregnant Then Screwed, said: “The rollout of the new childcare benefit was causing a number of big issues for parents and providers. We are pleased to say that the DfE has now fixed some of these problems after parents organised and provided proof that there were a number of issues that needed their attention.
“However, there are still a number of challenges ahead with the rollout of this new scheme. Many providers still don’t have the information they need from the local authority to plan effectively, leaving parents and providers in the dark.”