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Extended free childcare rollout begins amid concern over costs and staffing

The government’s extended childcare policy is beginning today – but it starts amid warnings of a lack of funding and not enough staff to fulfil the pledge.

From today, eligible parents and carers of two-year-olds will be entitled to 15 hours of funded childcare per week.

It is the first part of a £8bn package – announced at the 2023 budget – that the government hopes will save “working parents” an average of £3,450 a year and help boost the workforce and the economy.

While welcomed by parents, it has already come under criticism from providers and the opposition.

Labour has highlighted Ofsted data suggesting more than 1,000 childcare places were lost between March and December 2023, despite the expected uptick in demand.

And the Early Years Alliance (EYA), which represents providers of childcare, says services will struggle and fees may need to go up.

The 1 April changes mark the start of a staggered rollout, with the plan being that working parents of all children nine months and over will get 15 hours of free childcare from September this year, rising to 30 hours a year later.

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Labour’s attack included a so-called “dossier of childcare chaos”, which lays out concerns such as parents complaining of high costs, long waiting lists, and nurseries warning they could go bust.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said: “After 14 years of Tory failure, it will be Labour who get on with the job and finally deliver the much-needed childcare for parents.

“That is why we have commissioned respected former Ofsted Inspector Sir David Bell to lead a review on early education and childcare to guarantee early years entitlements for parents.

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“Only Labour will reform our childcare system and deliver the accessible, affordable early years education that will give children the best start in life.”

The commissioning of the review by Labour was seen by the Conservatives as an attempt to cancel the plans should Sir Keir Starmer’s party come to power.

‘We are not glorified babysitters’

At the Cornerstone Tots playgroup in Grimsby, mum-of-three Vicky Nunn welcomed the extra free childcare. Working long hours as a nurse, she says it “takes a weight off my mind that I can still work, being able to know that I can afford childcare and not have to drop shifts”.

But there are concerns that parents and carers pinning their hopes on benefiting from the new offers could be disappointed.

EYA chief executive Neil Leitch said there’s a lack of both spaces and staff.

“You have to value the sector, you have to recognise that we are not glorified babysitters,” he said.

The rising cost of living may also play a part.

At Grimsby’s community baby bank, they’ve seen an increase in the number of working families using their service.

Volunteer Leanne Hudson told Sky News: “Some families are going without eating themselves, just so the children can eat.”

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Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said the government is on track to deliver the first phase of its roll-out to 150,000 working parents of two-year-olds.

The expansion of free childcare aims to take pressure off parents and providers, but there are concerns it might not get people back to work quite as quickly as the government hopes.

Sky News Source