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Govt's free childcare roll-out figures ‘paint incomplete picture’

Govt's free childcare roll-out figures ‘paint incomplete picture’
Matt Browning
Written By:
Matt Browning

The Government has announced that almost 200,000 children have benefitted from its childcare expansion programme.

The Government has announced that almost 200,000 children have benefitted from its childcare expansion programme.

It wrote that 195,355 two-year-olds had been signed up for 15 hours of free childcare as part of its pilot, therefore putting the roll-out of the ‘the largest ever expansion of childcare in England’s history’ on track for its September 2025 completion.

The Department for Education confirmed that 79% of eligibility codes have been validated by childcare providers, ahead of the 71% issued to parents in 2017.

This was the last time there was a similar expansion of free childcare, which aimed to benefit parents of children aged three and four years old.

‘Thousands more’ to have places confirmed

As part of the Government’s three-step phase, eligible families in April could access free childcare, and ‘thousands more’ will have their places confirmed, the Government said.

The expansion programme has the following phases to run:

  • September 2024: Up to 15 hours for eligible working families in England with a child aged between nine and 23 months old.
  • September 2025: Up to 30 hours for eligible working families in England with a child from nine months old up to school age.

As well as updating parents on the take up of the programme so far, the Government also gave an update on the additional places and staff numbers required for the roll-out in September 2025.

This is when children aged nine months can access 15 hours of free childcare per week until they begin primary school, saving parents an average of £6,900, the Government suggests.

70,000 places still needed for 2025

There are 15,000 additional places needed for this September’s roll-out, many of which are to be filled following “£100m of capital investment and additional £12m of delivery support for local authorities.”

A further 70,000 places are likely to be needed for September 2025, when the offer expands to 30 hours for children of the same age.

Gillian Keegan, education secretary, said: “We are transforming childcare in this country to deliver the support that hard-working parents deserve.

“As today’s figures show, our plan is working. Thousands of parents are returning to work, and tens of thousands more will be able to do so later this year and next.

Keegan added: “Childcare expansion on this scale is unprecedented in this country, and we will continue providing maximum support to nurseries and all providers to make it a reality.”

‘Severe capacity challenges’ remain

However, Neil Leitch, CEO of the Early Years Alliance, says today’s announcement “paints an incomplete picture of the situation facing early years providers and families alike.”

Leitch said: “Let’s be clear; England’s early year sector continues to face severe capacity challenges.

“So while these statistics may show the number of places that have been granted, what they don’t reveal is whether families have been able to access all the days and sessions they need: a parent who has been given one day a week at their local setting – but needs five – may technically have a funded place, but not one that meets their needs.”

The Early Years Alliance founder also questioned how many of the places were newly created places or parents moving from paying privately to using the Government scheme.

Leitch added: “With Government admitting not only that 40,000 additional educators are required by September 2025 but also 85,000 new places, it’s clear that, regardless of the positive spin Government is trying to put on the current situation, the challenge facing the sector is an immense one.”

The roll-out hasn’t been without issues, as when the registration for the 15 hours of free childcare began in January, many parents reported problems with obtaining a code.

Some had issues being accepted too, so parents ought to check their eligibility criteria before applying on the Government portal.

Parents of babies aged up to nine months have until 12 May to apply for 15 hours of free childcare per week (term-time only).

How to apply:

To start the application, you’ll need:

  • Your National Insurance number (or Unique Taxpayer Reference if you’re self-employed)
  • The date you started or are due to start work
  • Details of any Government support or benefits you receive
  • The UK birth certificate reference number (if you have one) for your child

Approvals can take up to seven days to be received, after which you will have a code to present to your childcare provider.