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Expansion of Free Childcare

Volume 837: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the implementation of the expansion of free childcare hours.

My Lords, I can confirm that over 200,000 parents of two year-olds are now benefiting from the Government’s help with childcare costs as part of the largest ever expansion of childcare support in England. From September 2025, our full expansion will save parents up to £6,900 a year. Our investment will be over £400 million in 2024-25 alone, and by 2027-28 we expect to spend in excess of £8 billion every year on free hours and early education, doubling our current spending.

My Lords, the DfE’s own pulse survey from last week found that 45% of childcare and early years providers said that it was unlikely that they would increase the number of places they offer to under-threes as a result of the Government’s childcare expansion. The maths does not add up for providers and there is patchy provision across the country, with the sector still losing staff. Despite the confidence of the Minister and in the Statement earlier today in the other place, is this not simply a good idea that is going disastrously wrong?

We have to be careful about describing 200,000 additional children going into childcare aged two from this April as something “going disastrously wrong”. I argue that it is a huge success.

My Lords, I know from some of the information that has come to me that it has been estimated that we are 40,000 workers down on the target to implement this fully—in a sector where about half the workers are saying that they want to leave within the next 12 months due to a lack of pay and overwork. What will the Government do to square that circle?

The figure of 40,000 is the increase in the workforce that we need to achieve by September 2025. That is exactly why we are having a phased introduction to this policy. Even before we increased the rates for providers last year, there was almost a 13,000 increase in the workforce, and we have a number of initiatives to build on that.

My Lords, I very much welcome the increase in free childcare hours, but is my noble friend the Minister aware that some parents of children with special educational needs are finding it difficult to find a placement? Is she satisfied that the extra allowance attached to those children is sufficient to encourage nurseries to take them on?

I am grateful to my noble friend for raising that, because this can be an incredibly valuable support for children with special educational needs in their early years. We have increased the hourly funding rates and the dedicated additional SEND funding, but the department is doing a review of the SEND inclusion fund, to understand better how it is being used and whether we can improve on it.

My Lords, the Minister has been asked many times about the apparent disconnection between the aspiration of this policy—which is admirable, as I have said before, and I think that most people would agree—and the ability of the sector to deliver it, and it has come up again today. If, for example, she had in her family a young person who was thinking about making a career in early years work, would she recommend them to do so? Where would she expect them to find the best career opportunities in the next three or four years?

First, it is more than an aspiration. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State talked about aiming for 150,000 additional children taking up the entitlement offer in April. As I said, we are at just over 200,000, and we think that that number will continue to tick up, so it is more than an aspiration. Secondly, I was genuinely having this conversation at dinner with a friend, whose granddaughter was thinking about what to do with her career. There are fantastic opportunities in early years and childcare, such as apprenticeships and bootcamps, and we are introducing a route for people with experience but perhaps not the same formal qualifications. These are for all age groups and stages, and they include men as well as women.

My Lords, the increase in free childcare hours is a welcome development, especially for families with the least and with the greatest needs. It is a step along the way. Could the Minister assure the House that there are plans in place to extend the facilities across the country, to make sure that there is availability of these important services?

The noble Lord is right that one part of delivering this is to do with workforce, and we are focused on delivering that, but the other part is to do with the physical buildings and facilities, particularly for much younger children. We have supported local authorities with £100 million of capital funding and we are also testing a pilot in school and college facilities where they have spare space, to determine how that might be made suitable for childcare provision.