Jeremy Hunt: Childcare offer 'on track' despite threat to thousands of places

The Chancellor has insisted that he is “confident” that the rollout of free childcare is “on track” despite suggestions that almost 15,000 places in Yorkshire could be under threat.

Jeremy Hunt yesterday refused to guarantee that the first stage of the rollout would be delivered in full next month.

The proposals, first announced in his Autumn Statement last year, provides working parents of two-year-old children 15 hours of free childcare from April, ahead of giving families with children as young as nine months able to claim 30 free hours by 2025.

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However, a “dossier” released by the Labour Party on Sunday suggested that an estimated 183,408 places across England, including 14,472 in Yorkshire could be at risk due to nursery closures.

The Chancellor yesterday said he could not guarentee the Government's offer would be ready in time for all parents looking for free childcare.The Chancellor yesterday said he could not guarentee the Government's offer would be ready in time for all parents looking for free childcare.
The Chancellor yesterday said he could not guarentee the Government's offer would be ready in time for all parents looking for free childcare.

Previous analysis by the Early Years Alliance found that 1 in 4 nurseries and pre-schools are likely or very likely to close over the next 12 months due to financial pressures they are facing.

Labour said that if this was replicated nationally, tens of thousands of places could be under threat, meaning that parents could miss out on the Government’s flagship offer to young families ahead of the election.

Further research by the National Day Nurseries Association last month found that 54 per cent of private, voluntary and independent nurseries were unlikely to offer additional places to two-year-olds, or were unsure if they would be able to meet demand.

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Bridget Philipson, the party’s shadow education secretary, said that ministers’ offer to voters was “in absolute tatters”.

Mr Hunt told the BBC that he believed that the Government was “on track” to meet their offer, but said he “did not want to give an absolute guarantee” that the first step would be ready in time for next month.

Ms Phillipson accused the Chancellor of “rushing out” the commitment, adding that it is “working parents” who will discover that it cannot be delivered.

Labour said that the costs for families have “ballooned” under the Conservatives, with the number of parents having to go into debt or dip into savings to pay for childcare rising by 30 per cent in the last year.

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Ahead of its manifesto launch before the general election, the opposition has commissioned Sir David Bell, a former chief inspector of Ofsted, to lead an Early Years Review to set out recommendations for the party in government.

Officials in Sheffield have warned that the major expansion of childcare spaces may see local nurseries stretched to meet the demands.

The local council is receiving over £3.5 million to help deliver the programme, in addition to managing the Government’s grant of £14.7 million going to providers.

One report to its education, children and families policy committee forecasts between 2,068 and 2,169 more two-year-olds will take up the new offer, an increase of more than 100 per cent.

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It said that there is capacity for approximately 2,070 new places from next month, which appears to be sufficient to meet the demand.

“However, if demand is significantly higher than forecast, this would pose a significant challenge,” the report noted.

Councillor Dawn Dale, the committee’s chair, said that the scheme has been “speedily rolled out” and “not really well thought through”.

“My worry is about that capacity – we’ve had lots of conversations in the sector – lots of nurseries have closed, lots of nurseries that are open have closed their baby rooms because they needed space for two-year-olds, three-year-olds and four-year-olds,” she added.

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“If parents are being told that they are entitled to paid-for childcare, and they go to a nursery and they’re over capacity, then how are we going to manage that?”

Karen McGowan, another councillor, said that she is the trustee of a pre-school where there is no capacity to expand, with parents having to put their names down on a waiting list before they are born in order to be guaranteed a spot when they come of age.